PBS "Newshour" - Transcript: Sen. Susan Collins Hopes Moderates Will Return to the GOP's 'Shrinking Middle'


JUDY WOODRUFF: We have been speaking with members of the Republican Party about internal conflicts that led to the partial government shutdown, and where the GOP goes from here with record-low approval rating.

We conclude the series tonight with a third-term senator known for working across the aisle. It was her blueprint that helped lead to the compromise that reopened the government.

Senator, thank you for being with us.

And I first want to ask you to put on your hat as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to ask you about these new reports about NSA, National Security Agency, surveillance in Asia, including using the U.S. and the embassies of the United States and allies, and also this information about NSA tapping into communication links of Google and Yahoo!.

Is there something you can say to help us understand what's going on? What do you make of it?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine.: We had a briefing in the Intelligence Committee today.

And, obviously, it's a classified briefing. That's one of the frustrations of being on the Intelligence Committee, is you can't freely share information. But, as you know, General Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, has said that the reports about the NSA tapping into Google servers is not an accurate report.

Clearly, however, we need to have reforms of the system. We need to have more transparency. And we need to ensure that the privacy and civil liberties of Americans are being safeguarded. And just today, we approved a major reform bill that will do just that.

I'm very pleased that it includes an amendment that I authored with my colleague Angus King from Maine that will strengthen the role of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to do for oversight of NSA's collection programs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator, let me turn you now -- thank you for that.

I want to turn you now to the Republican Party. And there's a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out today that shows record low approval ratings for your party, for the Republican Party. It shows approval is down for the government overall, but for Republicans, 22 percent positive, 53 percent negative.

Why do you think that is?

SUSAN COLLINS: That's certainly a clarion call for the Republicans, for my party, to do a lot of self-examination.

I think it's worth noting that the president's approval ratings are down as well. The Democratic Party's is down. But you're certainly right that no one is lower than the Republicans right now. This reflects a loss of confidence in the ability of Washington as a whole to govern responsibly.

And I believe that the shutdown of this past month of government for 16 days, the nearness that we came to defaulting on our debts, and the lack of a long-term fiscal plan to deal with our $17 trillion debt are the reasons why. The American people are clearly frustrated and fed up with the partisan gridlock and the excessive partisanship that they're seeing in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you specifically about the growing influence in your party over the last few years of not just the Tea Party, but strong views held by self-identified libertarians. And these increasingly are individuals who believe in a dramatically smaller role for government, period.

They were a major part of the reason there was the gridlock, the shutdown of the government earlier this month. How do you see that influence in your party? Do you see it growing? What's going to happen from here?

SUSAN COLLINS: Well, first, let me say that I believe in a big-tent Republican Party, where there's room for a variety of views.

I have greatly disagreed with the tactics that led to the shutdown of government. There was no way that shutting down government was somehow going to lead to the defunding or repeal of the president's signature achievement of Obamacare.

I opposed Obamacare, voted against it, have voted many times to repeal and reform it. But that was just a tactic that made absolutely no sense. And I think those poll numbers are reflecting some frustration. Having said that, I think that the Tea Party, the other influences in our party have kept a focus on the size of government and on our $17 trillion national debt that is an important focus for our party.

But I certainly disagree with the strategy that was adopted. It was never going to be successful, and it was a fantasy to think that it was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I don't know, Senator, if you consider yourself a moderate Republican, but I know many other people who watch politics closely do.

Why do you think there are so few moderates left in elected office in your party?

SUSAN COLLINS: In the last few years, we have seen, through a combination of factors, including gerrymandering, I would argue the 24/7 news cycle, a lot of different factors have combined to elect people who are at the extremes of both parties, the far left and the far right.

And that has led to a shrinking middle. But I think that the pendulum is starting to swing back. And evidence of that is the group of 14 senators that I put together, seven Republicans, six Democrats and an independent, to work together on a plan to pave the way to the end of the shutdown impasse.

That's a pretty -- pretty large number of senators working together and ultimately agreeing on a six-point plan. And that gives me hope that the center will come back. In addition, I think the center is where most people of this country are, and they just need to make their voices heard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quick answer: Do you think electing more women would make the party more moderate?


I also think women tend to be more collaborative, even though we span the ideological spectrum in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Susan Collins of Maine, we thank you very much.