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Senators Collins and Murkowski, It’s Time to Leave the G.O.P.

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© Joshua Roberts/Reuters Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

By SUSAN FALUDI, The New York Times

Just hours after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, media legal analysts and commentators began forecasting what this will mean for women’s reproductive freedom. On CNN: “Roe v. Wade is doomed.” Huffington Post: “It’s time to prepare for life without nationwide legal abortion.” Reuters: “a death knell for Roe v. Wade.” Or, as one commenter remarked, invoking Dylan, “looks like it’s all over now, baby blue.”

[post_ads]I share the despair, but have we forgotten something? Republicans have a one-vote majority in the Senate. Their number includes two female moderates, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, both of whom support abortion rights, and one of whom — Ms. Collins — has already declared this week that she would not support a candidate hostile to Roe v. Wade.

A no vote from these two senators might not be enough to offset affirmative votes from endangered red-state Democrats. And the attack on Roe may be pursued through a host of more subtle and incremental assaults, not an out-and-out declared repeal. To save Roe, Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski might need to wield a bigger stick. Fortunately, there’s one at hand, and wielding it at this pivotal moment might do good beyond the single issue. They could bolt their party and shift the balance of power in the Senate.

Since 1890, 21 senators have switched party affiliation during their time in office, some for matters of conscience, some to advance careers. In 2001, when the Senate was split 50-50, Jim Jeffords renounced his Republican membership to become an independent aligned with the Democrats, flipping control of the chamber. Arlen Specter, the last senator to switch party affiliations, became a Democrat again in 2009 for the same reason he became a Republican in 1965: he couldn’t get elected otherwise. Mr. Specter’s was an act of self-preservation. Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski have an opportunity for a principled act of national preservation.

By leaving the G.O.P. — either to join the other party or, more plausibly, to become independents and caucus with the Democrats — Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski wouldn’t simply be registering their opposition to a single Supreme Court justice. They’d be taking a powerful stand against their party’s escalating betrayals of the country. The Trump-era Republicans have made screamingly clear what should have been obvious for a long time: The G.O.P. is no longer a comfortable home for anyone who cares about the rights of women — or of minorities, immigrants, L.G.B.T. people, and the poor — or about the Constitution. Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski could drop the pretense that dissenting within the party has made one bit of “moderating” difference.

Defection would come at a cost. Both senators would lose precious seniority and powerful committee appointments. But accommodations can be made, and neither necessarily needs the Republican Party to win re-election. Ms. Murkowski, famously, ran and was elected in 2010 despite her party, which chose as its nominee a hard-line anti-abortion Tea Party zealot. “I am very cognizant of how I was returned to the Senate,” she said. “It was not my party that returned me. It was voters across the spectrum that returned me.”

Ms. Murkowski holds conservative views that, arguably, explain her hanging in with the G.O.P. — just for one, she’s all for drilling in pristine wildlife refuges to fuel her state’s economy. She would likely be uncomfortable with some of the Democratic agenda. But she’s also proved an independent voice of conscience, which earned her the Tea Party challenge; she ranks near the bottom on many right-wing scorecards. (Conservative Review gave her an F.)

Ms. Collins would have an easier road. She consistently ranks as one of the most popular senators and is beloved in Maine, as this former constituent can attest. Her blue-ish state voted for Hillary Clinton, and she avowedly did not vote for Trump. She’s gone against her party, voting for same-sex marriage and denouncing Muslim travel bans. But her recent concessions to the right — between her deciding vote on the tax bill, her crucial vote to send Education Secretary Betsy DeVos out of committee and her laudatory introduction of Jeff Sessions at his confirmation hearing for attorney general — are shredding her reputation for earnest moderation. She may be positioning herself to the right to deflect more harsh challenges from the reactionary Maine governor, Paul LePage. But these moves are alienating her sizable liberal constituency.

It’s a mistake to doubt the sincerity of Ms. Collins’s and Ms. Murkowski’s dedication to questions of women’s health. Ms. Collins was one of only three Republican senators to vote against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Last year, she and Ms. Murkowski broke ranks to cast the deciding votes against defunding Planned Parenthood. And this year, the two senators again voted with the majority of Senate Democrats to oppose a ban of abortion after 20 weeks. Both have been solid defenders of family planning and birth control. Both have earned high ratings with pro-choice groups — Ms. Collins has been rated higher than 90 percent by groups like NARAL in multiple years. To cave on this particular issue would be a tragic abrogation of personal, as well as political, conviction. Which is why the Supreme Court battle may at last compel both women to abandon the party they should have abandoned already.

A Senate no longer in the Republican grip could rescue women’s reproductive rights on multiple fronts: maternity coverage, access to contraception, teen-pregnancy prevention, breast-cancer treatment. It could protect us from planned eviscerations of Social Security and Medicare, and stop the gutting of Obamacare, the greenlighting of partisan gerrymandering, and the enshrining of an ethically shameless kleptocracy. It would thwart the authoritarian dream of seamless one-party rule across all three branches of government. Even a threat of leaving would send a salutary shock through the party.
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Maine Senator (and Congresswoman) Margaret Chase Smith, Ms. Collins’ political foremother and idol, often broke ranks with her party — to defend, for instance, F.D.R.’s New Deal legislation from conservative attacks. On June 1, 1950, she became one of the first members of Congress to denounce the anti-Communist witch hunt of fellow Republican Senator Joe McCarthy. She began her Declaration of Conscience speech: “I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.” She did not want “to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

After six moderate Republican senators signed the declaration, Mr. McCarthy labeled them, in Trumpian fashion, “Snow White and the Six Dwarves.” He had Ms. Smith removed from her post on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (replacing her with Richard Nixon) and lavished support on her challenger in the next election (she won anyway).

Ms. Smith could at least appeal to Republican legislators willing to put reason, compassion, and country ahead of party. Trumpist Republicans have no room for such niceties — they care only about winning. Which is why only losing the Senate can get their attention, and slow the party’s extremism.

We are at another watershed moment that could “result in national suicide and the end to everything we Americans hold dear.” As the damage and outrages pile up, it’s important to remember that Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski are enabling them with their affiliation, even when they dissent. They could halt the whole charade, and alter the course of history, with a press release.

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