Is it even possible?

In this era of red-versus-blue and Lord help anyone who tries to blend the two, can a member of the U.S. Senate formally embrace compromise not just as a talking point, but as a tangible path forward?

“I don’t want to oversell because I know how hard it is to bring about change, and I know it’s not going to happen right off,” Sen. Susan Collins said Friday in a telephone interview. “But I still think, first of all, that I have to try and that people in this country are hungry for that kind of approach. I really believe that.”

It wasn’t last week’s biggest news, what with the tale of Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore’s penchant for teenage girls and the cringe-worthy photo of Presidents Trump and Putin, in their matching blue silk shirts, gripping and grinning at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam.

But make no mistake about it: Collins’ long-in-the-making decision to serve as honorary co-chair of the bipartisan group No Labels could well be a faraway light at the end of a long, very dark political tunnel.

Never heard of them? A little background:

Since its founding in 2010, No Labels has launched an array of initiatives – some specific, many largely symbolic – aimed at ending the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Led by former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the organization gained traction earlier this year with the emergence of the House Problem Solvers Caucus.

Split almost evenly between the two parties, the 47 representatives have pledged to work together on legislation ranging from fixes to the Affordable Care Act to sweeping changes in the federal tax code.

Collins, while long supportive of the spirit behind No Labels, initially had misgivings about its ability to actually break the longstanding political logjam in Congress.

“When it first started out, I felt that it didn’t have an operational arm, if you will, that it was more finding its way,” she said. “I clearly agreed with its goal to be a voice for bipartisanship, but I felt like the organization hadn’t figured out how to do that yet.”

That began to change last spring, when No Labels asked Collins to speak at its conference in Washington, D.C., a gathering of some 800 movers and shakers, both public and private, from all over the country.

It was there Collins first advised the group that, if they hoped to have success bridging the partisan divide, they need to become “fanatical moderates” and thus match the zeal of both the far left and the far right.

“They loved the phrase,” she recalled. “I had just scores of members come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Finally, that’s what we should be!’ It caught their fancy and caught on. That speech helped energize me as well.”

Then, in early September, No Labels approached Collins about joining Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as the organization’s honorary co-chair – transplanting to the Senate the same momentum that had taken root in the House.

Collins, still mulling a race for Maine’s governorship, demurred at first. But upon deciding to stay in Washington, D.C., and, just as important, concluding that No Labels is ready for political prime time, she accepted.

She was impressed, she said, by the willingness of the Problem Solvers Caucus to get behind a compromise health reform bill proposed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

And while support for that measure now grows in the Senate, Collins hopes the same approach can produce a bipartisan tax bill between now and the end of the year.

Pitfalls, of course, lurk everywhere.

Here in Maine, Collins raised many a moderate and liberal eyebrow Friday by meeting with Ivanka Trump to talk tax reform before an invitation-only audience of Republicans.

She now must reassure her newly expanded base that, just as she did last summer on the Republicans’ ill-fated “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, she’ll similarly dig in her heels should a tax bill veer away from the middle class and toward the mega-rich.

And on Capitol Hill, where leadership rules with an often-heavy hand, she’ll need to persuade enough of her colleagues that No Labels in a political risk worth taking.

“The lines are drawn in the sand all the time by the political leaders on both sides of the aisle. And I realize they are not going to be enthusiastic about our group, to say the least,” Collins said.

But beyond the Senate’s party caucuses, she added, “there needs to be another forum that is bipartisan in nature and that transcends committee jurisdictions, where we can hash out issues and talk about whether there’s a role for us.”

Job one for Collins will be to grow No Labels’ formal foothold in the Senate beyond just her and Manchin. Ideally, she envisions 10 senators, five from each party caucus, willing to present themselves as a force to be reckoned with when the nose-counting begins on pivotal legislation.

At the same time, she sees this as an opportunity to step back to the old way of getting things done in the Senate, when non-election years like this one were a time not for partisan bomb-throwing, but for actual lawmaking.

“I just think if we can get that critical mass to match what they’ve done in the House, with the overall support of No Labels helping to get supporters all across the country, it could be a game changer,” she said.

Call her a dreamer, or a Republican In Name Only or any of the other knee-jerk epithets hurled these days at those who dare step outside the comfort of their ideological encampments.

But it’s well worth noting that the Problem Solvers Caucus now constitutes just over 10 percent of the House – larger than the ultraconservative Republican Freedom Caucus that in recent years has brought our legislative branch to its knees.

If Collins and Manchin can replicate that in the Senate, more power to them.

And, lo and behold, to us.

Update on Progressive Portland: In the wake of last Sunday’s column on the Portland City Council’s at-large race and the activist group Progressive Portland, I received an email Friday from co-founder Steven Biel regarding his current leave of absence from Progressive Portland’s “day-to-day” operations.

“I remain the president of the organization,” Biel wrote, “and intend to continue to work with (it) as much as I can … given that it’s a volunteer project.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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