Maine Sen. Susan Collins is joined by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, another pro-choice Republican, left, at the Capitol in Washington in February. The Senate battle over President Trump’s next Supreme Court nominee has put both of them in the spotlight, even before the president makes his choice.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins may hold the fate of abortion rights in the United States in her hands.

President Trump, who pledged to nominate only anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court, is days away from announcing a court nominee. And local and national organizations are ratcheting up the pressure on Collins, a pro-choice swing vote in the Senate, to reject a nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Make no mistake, the rights and freedoms of more than 300 million people are on the line,” Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said in a conference call Thursday. Townsend and the leaders of other progressive organizations, including the AFL-CIO and Maine Conservation Voters, called on Collins and Sen. Angus King, an independent, to closely scrutinize any nominee.

Trump has been interviewing candidates drawn from a 25-person list created by the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative and libertarian-leaning lawyers, and on Monday plans to announce his nominee to fill the seat of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Townsend said the judges selected by the Federalist Society have a common ideology that “would take our country backwards.”

“Senators Collins and King must oppose the confirmation of such individuals,” Townsend said. “I ask (Senator Collins) to be a strong leader in this critical moment.”

A moderate Republican, Collins is in a key position to influence the debate over who will replace Kennedy, as is colleague Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another Republican moderate. Both senators voted against the Republican health care reform bill last year.

Collins has championed women’s reproductive rights and played a key role in preventing Republicans from withholding funding of Planned Parenthood in 2015. She has repeatedly voted against restricting abortions.

Collins has been at the center of news stories and ad campaigns nationwide since she said Sunday that she wouldn’t support a nominee who wants to overturn the decision on the right to choose, which she considers settled law. However, pro-abortion rights activists are wary because Collins also has said she wouldn’t ask for any nominee’s personal opinion on any specific issue, and they think Collins and other senators need to press Supreme Court nominees on their specific positions.

Collins’ office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Activists have launched a lobbying campaign that includes calls and emails, and in some cases have mailed the senator wire coat hangers, a symbol of unsafe, illegal abortions that pre-dated Roe v. Wade’s passage in 1973.

AS A MODERATE, NOT ALWAYS SUCCESSFUL

Collins has straddled this conflict between party and personal conviction before.

In addition to her vote against the Republican health care reform bill, she criticized Trump’s travel ban and announced her support for same-sex marriage in 2014.

Her efforts to leverage her moderate position haven’t always been successful – such as when she voted in favor of the Republican tax reform bill after getting “ironclad” promises of support for Affordable Care Act stabilization measures that never materialized. At the time, Collins said that if the commitments on the bills weren’t kept, “there will be consequences” – and said as recently as April that she still hadn’t given up on the idea, although she said the process had been “poisoned” by partisanship.

Collins and King need to take “a very, very hard look” at the nominees “and not accept facile answers as Senator Collins has in the past,” said Portland civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto, who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 for same-sex couples to have the right to marry.

Bonauto noted that last year, then-nominee Neil Gorsuch refused to answer questions about certain cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, and said senators should not allow that to happen this time.

“I urge both (senators) to be leaders, to get answers to the tough questions. That’s their job,” Bonauto said. If the nominee won’t answer those questions, she said, “I urge (the senators) to conclude (the nominee) is not qualified to take this position.”

Bonauto also said that a nominee’s assurance that he or she will follow precedent is “close to meaningless” because there are other ways to erode a previous Supreme Court decision without directly overturning it.

Activists say the debate over whether a Trump nominee wouldn’t support overturning Roe v. Wade is specious because Trump campaigned on an anti-abortion platform and said he would put anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court.

In a campaign debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump said Roe v. Wade would be overturned if he got to change the balance on the court. “If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that will happen. And that will happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court,” Trump said.

A NARAL Pro-Choice America campaign running in the Portland Press Herald and several other Maine daily newspapers highlights that position, saying “Trump has been loud and clear in saying he’d pick Supreme Court justices to end Roe v. Wade. We believe him. Don’t you, Senator Collins?”

“We know that Senator Collins has always said she would protect the fundamental right to privacy for women and families enshrined in Roe, and we know that now more than ever, Mainers want her to stand strong,” said NARAL President Ilyse Hogue. “Too much is on the line to not believe Donald Trump will do exactly what he said he’d do.”

‘WE ARE GOING TO BE WATCHING’

Collins, who joined the Senate in 1997, has voted to confirm all five Supreme Court nominees who have come before her, from liberal justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan put forward by President Obama to conservatives Samuel Alito, John Roberts (both under George W. Bush) and Gorsuch last year.

In each case her questions and statements suggested a concern over whether the nominee would respect precedents set down by prior courts. She also has expressed concern about procedure, speaking out in favor of Obama nominee Merrick Garland receiving a Senate hearing in 2016. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, refused, denying Obama, a Democrat, the ability to select a justice, with lasting consequences for the balance of the court.)

Now, Collins and King represent “our last line of defense,” said Andrea Irwin, executive director of the Mabel Wadsworth Center, a reproductive health care clinic in Bangor that provides abortions.

“We are going to be watching and counting on them,” Irwin said Thursday. “This is (Collins’) opportunity to lead, rather than follow.”

Under current rules, nominees to the Supreme Court must be confirmed by a majority in the 100-member Senate. Republicans have 51 members, but Sen. John McCain may not be able to vote because of health issues, so confirming the nominee would require every other Republican senator’s support unless a Democrat crosses party lines.

Three Democrats – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota – supported Gorsuch, and all face re-election in November in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election. Vice President Mike Pence also could cast a tie-breaking vote.

On Sunday, Collins said she met with Trump and told him she was looking for a nominee who would demonstrate a respect for precedent, and urged him to look for nominees beyond the 25 people picked by the Federalist Society.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Maine’s senior senator said she would support nominees who consider Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that overturned laws criminalizing or restricting access to abortion, a settled matter.

“(Chief Justice John) Roberts has made very clear that he considers Roe v. Wade to be settled law. I would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade,” Collins said.

She said Trump told her at the meeting last week that he would not ask the candidates about whether they would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that Trump doesn’t need to ask where nominees stand on overturning Roe v. Wade because his list already has been screened on that issue by the Federalist Society.

LEPAGE HOPES ‘SHE’S A REPUBLICAN FOR ONCE’

At the same time, Republicans and anti-abortion activists are urging Collins to support a Trump nominee.

“I’m just hoping she’s a Republican for once,” Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday on WGAN’s Morning News program. “(Let’s) just stop playing games. The judiciary is every bit as political as the legislative and the executive branch. They are all political. So let’s just find a person that we can all agree with and put him on there.”

As for Roe v. Wade, LePage said it was “the law of the land,” but added that “if they can make the case for getting rid of it, let’s do it.”

When Trump announced that Kennedy was retiring, most major news outlets immediately noted that any administration nominee would likely lead to the reversal or erosion of Roe v. Wade. On Thursday, activists noted that a newly formed court also could reverse or erode current law protecting the environment or labor.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Townsend, of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “I urge Collins and King to do everything in their considerable power to protect the health and well-being of all of us.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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