When Susan Collins took the oath of office as a U.S. senator in 1997, she found herself near the bottom of a long list that determined which members would lead important committees and who would sit far from the center of the action.

One of the advantages of serving in her fourth six-year term is that Collins, a Maine Republican, is a whole lot closer to the top of the list, ranking 12th in seniority among 100 senators. She’s the seventh-most senior GOP senator.

In a speech in Bethel recently, Collins pointed out what that means as she heads into the maelstrom of her fifth Senate campaign.

“You know who’s going to be the next chairman of the Appropriations Committee should I choose to run?” she asked the crowd in Bethel.

Then she pointed at herself and smiled, according to a Bloomberg news story.

The committee is the most powerful, and largest, in the Senate, Collins said recently in her Lewiston office. Chairing the panel, she said, “is the most coveted position in the entire Senate.”

Her political opponents question, though, whether Collins will ever lead the panel, which decides the government’s discretionary spending, from cancer research to rockets. They also wonder whether it would matter much to Maine if she did.

Derek Lavasseur, a Republican from Fairfield who may challenge Collins in a primary next June, called her bid for the chairmanship “a power grab” from a power-hungry politician. He said she “cares more about ranking in Congress” than she does about her constituents in Maine.

Grabbing power, however, could be a way to help her constituents.

The committee she might chair divvies up billions of dollars each year among federal agencies and projects, including the $61 million in bridge repair funds for Maine that Collins announced a few days ago.

Even if she wins re-election in 2020, though, there are no guarantees Collins will chair the committee.

To begin with, its current chairman, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, an 85-year-old Alabama Republican, is likely to retain the post until 2022, when he has to give up the job because the Senate GOP has, since 1997, restricted chairmanships to no more than six years. Shelby is likely to retire that year in any case.

When Shelby goes, Collins is next in line to take the gavel — as long as the Republicans maintain control of the Senate and leave the existing seniority system in place.

But holding a GOP majority may prove tricky given that many Republican seats won in 2016 in Democratic-leaning states will be up for grabs again.

If Democrats take control, its senators will serve as chairs of every committee, leaving Collins on the sidelines.

Democrat Bre Kidman, a Saco lawyer who is seeking her party’s backing to take on Collins next year, said the bottom line is the senator’s future chairmanship of the panel “depends on the Republicans keeping the majority and a promise to her” that she’ll take charge of the committee.

The mix of seniority and partisanship involved in picking committee chairs has been a revered part of Senate life for more than a century, a way to distribute the perks of office in a way that makes them less dependent on the whims of leaders.

Collins has chaired the Select Committee on Aging since 2015. A decade earlier, she chaired the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee until 2006.

Collins has never chaired any of the Senate’s permanent committees widely perceived as the most crucial, among them Appropriations, Judiciary, Finance and Armed Services.

Every other sitting Republican senator who took office by 1997 chairs one of those panels, except Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, who is the majority leader.

One senator who took office at the same time as Collins, Republican Michael Enzi of Wyoming, is ranked just behind her in terms of seniority. He has chaired the Budget Committee since 2015 and plans to retire in 2020.

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who is just ahead of Collins on the seniority list, has chaired the Agriculture Committee for four years. He is also not seeking re-election in 2020.

Collins said she’s long had her eye on Appropriations.

She said she didn’t join it until 2009 because it was the first time in her Senate tenure that the opportunity arose.

“It’s hard to get on Apps,” Collins said, so when the chance came along she seized it.

At the time, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, held a post on the Finance Committee, a panel Collins said is the second most powerful, providing Maine with a voice on both the spending and taxing sides of the budget.

When Collins joined the Appropriations panel, she was at the bottom of its seniority list. But over the years, she said, she’s gradually risen almost to the top. She chairs its subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development.

Kidman said that “in a way, Collins heading up Appropriations would shed light on her shift in principles.”

“Adding ambition — after 23 years in the Senate with no committee chair position to call her own — to the mix of deep pockets now in her corner makes her a somewhat more sympathetic figure and chasing the opportunity to pork barrel for Maine does, at first blush, sound a bit like the Susan Collins of yesteryear. But at what cost?” Kidman said.

“The number of votes and judicial appointments she’s traded for this hypothetical power and the extreme impact those votes will have on middle-class and working-class citizens for years to come simply cannot be outweighed by another flimsy promise from Republican leadership that maybe Susan Collins will have a chance to do the right thing next term,” she said.

Two other Democratic challengers, Betsy Sweet of Hallowell and state House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, questioned whether Collins would put Maine first if she ever becomes the panel’s chair.

“It’s not useful for us to have someone who would just be a foot soldier” for President Donald Trump and McConnell, Sweet said.

Collins has been “putting special interests and her party’s political agenda first” instead of “standing up for Mainers,” said Maeve Coyle, a spokeswoman for Gideon’s campaign.

Danielle VanHelsing, an independent from Sangerville who is seeking the Senate seat in next year’s election, also questioned whether it matters if Collins becomes the committee’s chair.

After more than two decades with Collins in office, she said, the state remains one of the poorest in America.

“That is a stain on any Appropriation prowess she may think she has,” VanHelsing said.

Collins’ campaign declined Friday to respond to her challengers’ comments.

The Appropriations Committee didn’t exist until 1867, when the Senate unanimously agreed to split the Finance Committee’s duties between tax-writing, which it kept, and spending, which went to the new panel.

Its first chairman was a Mainer, Lot Morrill, who held the post until he lost his Senate seat to Hannibal Hamlin, who had served as Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president.

When Morrill departed Capitol Hill, Maine’s other senator, William Fessenden, took over the panel’s chairmanship. Fessenden, however, didn’t last long because he died in office in 1869.

Chosen to replace him was Morrill, who took over the Appropriations Committee chair again after a brief stint when a Californian held the reins.

In later years, two other Mainers held the chair of the committee— Eugene Hale and, two decades later, Frederick Hale, his son.

Since 1933, however, no Mainer has served as the panel’s chair.

If Collins wins re-election in 2020, no more than four Republicans would top the 66-year-old Mainer in seniority in the next Congress, three of them already in their mid-80s. McConnell, 77, is the only other GOP lawmaker ahead of her on the list.

Collins is likely to face a grueling re-election race from an energized Democratic Party, which is looking at a primary to decide its candidate. If Lavasseur gathers the required signatures, Collins would also face a primary challenger for the first time.

She has repeatedly said she will decide for sure whether to run in the coming weeks.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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