BANGOR,Maine — With the contentious national health reform debate behind her, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has shifted her priorities to extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers, creating jobs and strengthening the small business sector.
Snowe visited the Bangor Career Center on Oak Street Wednesday morning before meeting with the editorial board and others at the offices of the Bangor Daily News.
Faulting Congress for adjourning for a two-week recess without reaching agreement on the extension of unemployment benefits, Snowe said unemployed Mainers should not bear the burden of lawmakers’ indecision and partisan disagreements. Republicans have endorsed a bill to extend unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for jobless workers, according to Snowe, but the measure has been blocked by Democrats.
“People depend on every dollar,” she said. “They depend on these benefits to carry them through. They should not be caught in the throes of political gridlock in Washington.”
Snowe expressed hope that new job-creating legislation will help pull Maine and the country out of the economic doldrums, including a jobs bill adopted last month with Republican support. Among other elements, that law provides a payroll tax exemption for companies that hire workers who have been unemployed for at least 60 days and also bolsters funding for public improvement projects such as road and bridge construction.
Snowe said a separate measure aimed at strengthening the small-business sector will provide tax benefits, expand lending limits and decrease administrative fees for both borrowers and lenders. That measure, she said, is expected to garner bipartisan support.
“We need to put this on a fast track and get it done,” she said. “Jobs, jobs, jobs is what it’s all about.” Recovery from the nation’s economic crisis will begin with small businesses, she predicted.
Snowe also discussed President Obama’s energy package, saying federal subsidies for wind, solar and tidal power projects are important to create jobs and free the U.S. from its longtime dependence on fossil fuels. But investors in new energy sources must demonstrate the long-term sustainability and cost-effectiveness of their projects, she said.
“You want to encourage these projects, but at some point they have to become self-sustaining,” she said.
She said the federal government has a vital role to play in preventing the discontinuation of rail freight services to companies in northern Maine. Officials with the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc. have announced that they will seek approval from the Surface Transportation Board to discontinue service along a 233-mile stretch of track serving northern Penobscot and Aroostook Counties.
“The railroad is a vital link to two dozen businesses,” Snowe said. “Its closure would have a devastating economic impact.” At the urging of Maine’s congressional delegation, federal officials will meet with MMA administrators, state officials and others at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at the Margaret Chase Smith federal Building in Bangor. The Surface Transportation Board will hold a field hearing on the matter, but details have not been announced.
Asked about her work with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to promote the security of computer systems and electronic data, Snowe said it is essential to protect national security and prevent economic crisis. The Rockefeller-Snowe Cybersecurity Act includes initiatives to raise the priority of cybersecurity in government functions, foster market-driven security solutions, and protect intellectual property and proprietary information.
Snowe said she favors the use of military tribunals instead of civilian trials for the al-Qaida suspects accused in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If the military prison at Guantanamo Bay is closed, the tribunals should be conducted at secure military facilities, she said.
Regarding the recently enacted national health reform law, Snowe said she was disappointed at being unable, ultimately, to vote in support of its passage. Though she played a key role in developing the Senate Finance Committee bill that formed the backbone of the legislation, she said the final language of the bill and Democrats’ unwillingness to allow additional amendments forced her to vote against it.
“It became an all-or-nothing proposition,” she said. “The fact that I couldn’t support it was deeply disappointing to me and to my staff.”
Snowe and other Republicans offered a number of last-minute amendments during the final reconciliation process, none of which were accepted for debate.
“It was difficult to accept everything in this bill with no changes and no deference to the issues I raised as a legitimate and good-faith player,” Snowe said.
She faulted the new law for not doing enough to drive down health care spending, for imposing new taxes and penalties on businesses during a time of economic hardship, for cutting spending in Medicare and for failing to adequately ensure the affordability of private insurance.
She praised the reform act for some measures that will go into effect this year, including a requirement that insurance companies cover children with pre-existing conditions, tax credits to encourage small businesses to insure their workers, and a $250 rebate for seniors who fall into the Medicare prescription coverage gap.