WASHINGTON – Like many of the 4,999 that preceded it, the vote that Sen. Susan Collins cast Thursday afternoon isn’t one that future historians will dissect from a policy perspective.

But with her clearly enunciated “No,” the Maine Republican became just the third person in the 223-year history of the U.S. Senate to pass a major, if symbolic, milestone: 5,000 consecutive votes.

“That’s over 15 consecutive years of never missing a vote,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said moments later on the floor. “Senator Collins is actually in quite elite company.”

Collins’ voting streak — up to 5,002 by Thursday afternoon — is exceeded by only one sitting senator, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has logged more than 6,400 consecutive votes and counting. The king of not missing votes is the late Sen. William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat whose 22-year record appears safe for the foreseeable future.

To pass Proxmire’s tally of 10,252 consecutive votes, Collins would have to stick around for another 15 years at her current rate.

Maine’s junior senator said she was inspired by the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who cast nearly 3,000 consecutive votes over 13 years.

“It is a great honor to serve in the U.S. Senate and represent the people of Maine,” Collins said. “Voting is a senator’s most important responsibility, and I feel strongly about making every effort possible to be present when the roll is called.”

A moderate Republican, Collins has often been regarded as a key swing vote along with Maine GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe — a distinction that has raised her profile, but also at times made her the target of stiff criticism from both Republican and Democratic groups.

In recent years, she cast key votes to pass President Obama’s economic stimulus package and to overturn the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay service members. But she sided with her GOP colleagues to oppose the president’s health reform bill.

Thursday’s vote was far more arcane and, as with most roll calls in the Senate, not exactly exciting to watch.

The actual voting process took roughly 20 minutes as senators trickled into the chamber to indicate — by voice or hand signal — where they stood on a motion to table an amendment on a tax-related bill that seemed largely about political posturing for both parties. (Collins was on the losing side of the issue).

Few people other than her fellow senators, Senate staffers, policy wonks and journalists even knew it was happening. But afterward, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, paused to mark Collins’ achievement.

“A tenacious accomplishment indeed and represents the work ethic and dedication that Senator Collins has for the people of Maine and for the Senate,” McConnell said. “We all know she is one of the hardest-working members of the United States Senate.”

Reid called it “a remarkable accomplishment” and praised Collins for her willingness to compromise and for her leadership.

“A number of us have cast 5,000 votes, but it is ridiculous the example she has set,” Reid said with a laugh.

Collins’ streak hasn’t been without sacrifice.

During Senate sessions, she routinely heads back to Washington from Maine on Sunday night. Many other lawmakers don’t return until Monday. She once twisted her ankle while scrambling to get to the floor in time for a vote. And while she would have preferred a July wedding, Collins scheduled her upcoming nuptials for Congress’ August break because senators have been called back to work during the July 4th break.

Christian Potholm, a longtime political observer and professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said achieving a streak of that length “obviously shows a great deal of dedication.” And while the perfect record is symbolic, Collins seems to be appreciated by voters back home, he said.

“She is certainly very, very highly regarded by her constituents,” Potholm said. “Whatever she is doing, the people seem to like it. She has had some tough opponents in the past and she has crushed them.”

Collins’ streak has also become a light-hearted — if brief — distraction from the partisanship and political stalemates that have marked this session of Congress. Commentators and bloggers have dubbed her “the Cal Ripken of Congress,” a reference to professional baseball’s all-time leader in consecutive games played. And national media outlets from CNN to The Washington Post have covered her push to 5,000 votes.

During and after the vote, many senators from both parties walked up to Collins — who was dressed in a lavender skirt suit — to congratulate her and shake her hand.

Snowe, who is retiring this year, congratulated her colleague after the vote.

“Since she entered the chamber in 1997, Susan has been an inexhaustible champion for Maine, and this tremendous milestone is indicative of her unmistakable work ethic,” Snowe said in a statement.

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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