WASHINGTON — In her quest to not miss a Senate vote, Sen. Susan Collins has turned an ankle, persevered through icy drives to Boston when airports in Bangor and Portland were closed, and scrambled off a plane just before its doors closed.

Whether it’s an obscure procedural motion, a high-profile vote on historic legislation, or the Senate’s usual Monday afternoon “bed check” vote, the Maine Republican is determined to be present to call out “yea” or “nay.”

She is in a select group of senators with long consecutive-vote participation records. And Collins stands alone as the longest-serving current senator with an unbroken vote-casting streak, says the Senate Historian’s Office.

Since taking office in January 1997, Collins had cast 4,637 votes through this past Monday, according to the Historian’s Office. As of Friday, she had added another 10 votes to that total.

Collins says she entered the Senate with a Maine icon in mind, the late GOP Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who had her own long vote-participation streak going until she underwent hip surgery in 1968. Doing whatever it takes to not miss a single vote, Collins said, is her way of showing Mainers that she views the job of representing the state in the U.S. Senate as both privilege and responsibility.

“It can be an effort, but voting is a fundamental responsibility, so I think it matters,” Collins said. “I feel very honored to represent Maine in the Senate, and one way that I can demonstrate that I appreciate that honor is by being very conscientious about my work; and that includes showing up for votes.”

Lawmakers don’t typically miss many votes, even if few can boast of a perfect voting participation record over a long period of time. The active senator with the longest streak is Sen. Charles Grassley, with more than 6,000 consecutive votes cast, but the Iowa Republican missed votes in 1993 after floods hit his home state and he toured the damage with President Clinton.

According to CQ Weekly, a nonpartisan magazine that covers Congress, over the span of Collins’ career, the average vote-participation rate was at its highest at 98.7 percent in 1997 — Collins’ first year in the Senate. It was at its lowest at 94.3 percent in 2008.

More than half of senators said “yea” or “nay” for at least 98 percent of the 299 floor votes last year, according to CQ’s 2010 vote study in January. Overall, the average vote-participation rate last year among senators was 96.6 percent, about where it’s been over the past two decades, CQ reported.

Including Collins, 15 senators participated in all 2010 votes, according to CQ. Among those with a perfect 2010 voting participation record was Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Since she took office in 1995, Snowe has missed just 11 votes and cast a total of 5,554, her office said last week.

Collins’ determination never to miss even a single vote during her entire Senate career stands out — and the accomplishment hasn’t come easily.

Collins typically returns to Washington from her home in Bangor on Sundays, just to make sure she doesn’t run into problems on a Monday because of the Senate’s practice of holding a late-afternoon vote on Mondays, the so-called “bed check” tally.

Sometimes she will drive to Boston if the weather is bad in Maine, because she is more confident of being able to catch a plane or train from there to D.C.

Last fall, both she and Snowe were boarding a plane in Washington to head home for the weekend, having been told by Senate leaders that no more votes would be called — only to receive frantic calls from their staffs and even USAirways personnel to get off the plane and head back to the Capitol for a vote.

Then there was what happened on Aug. 1, 2007.

Collins was attending a hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security, on which she is the top Republican. A Senate vote was called as the committee was finishing up, but the senators were assured they had time.

Collins decided not to chance it.

She ran through the halls and underground tunnels of the Capitol complex, badly twisting an ankle in her high heels. She limped into the Senate chamber just in time to be one of 58 senators to cast a “nay” vote on a GOP-authored amendment to a children’s health insurance bill that Democrats and some Republicans said undercut the aims of the overall legislation.

The rest of her fellow committee members missed the vote.

“That was literally seconds,” Collins said. “It would have blown my record due to bad information. To miss a vote when I was right in the Senate complex would have been the worst of all possible reasons for missing it.”

Two political analysts said last week that Collins’ perfect voting attendance record appeals to voters — but doesn’t outweigh the importance of how she votes.

“Consistency in voting tends to look very good to voters,” said Amy Fried, a University of Maine political science professor, who added that many voters will relate Collins’ commitment to the requirement in their own lives to show up at work every day. However, “It’s more symbolic, because you can be a highly effective senator (without a perfect vote attendance record), and there are many highly effective senators who do not have voting records like that.”

Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College, called Collins’ vote record “a personal vision quest and an important one. I think it shows the voters she is very serious about her job.” However, Potholm added, “voters are notoriously fickle when it comes to what they prize in any given election cycle.”

Asked about Collins’ vote-attendance record, several politically active college students said they admired the commitment, but they attached varying degrees of importance to the accomplishment.

Meghan Kelly, 20, of Wells, a Colby College government major and self-described liberal Democrat who voted for Barack Obama and Collins in 2008, said it is “largely symbolic that she does that, but that symbolism is important. It shows people in Maine that she takes her job seriously … and I think it is something that the people of Maine do take into consideration when they vote.”

Lisa Kaplan, 20, a sophomore government and international studies major at Colby, wasn’t old enough to vote in 2008; but the Cape Elizabeth native said she probably would have voted for Democrat Tom Allen despite being “perfectly happy” with Collins’ performance in Washington. However, Kaplan said she was unhappy when Collins employed her vote record in a political attack on Allen, a member of Congress at the time, who missed some House votes.

“I would never question that she (Collins) works hard for her Maine constituents, but I am much more concerned with how she votes,” Kaplan said.

Collins’ perfect voting record does resonate with students, said David Foster, the principal at Horace Mitchell Primary School in Kittery Point, which Collins visited earlier this year.

When Collins talked about her vote-attendance record, that was “a teachable moment for our children,” Foster said, adding that his kindergarten-through-third-grade students might not have known exactly what a Senate vote means, but they do know what it means for an adult to have to go to work every day.

“It’s great that the kids hear that,” Foster said. “I am always preaching and spending time with parents talking about the importance of attendance at school.”

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

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