AUGUSTA, Maine — The political spotlight is once again focused on Maine’s two U.S. senators as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill grapple with a host of contentious issues during a pivotal election year.
From financial reform to a federal cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, there is no shortage of weighty and often partisan issues pending before Congress this year. And Maine’s two moderate senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, could play major roles in shaping and deciding the fate of major legislative initiatives.
The inordinate attention paid to the two Republican senators from the small state has been evident in recent weeks as interest groups launched television and newspaper ads and held rallies to pressure Snowe and Collins to support a jobs bill.
The bill, which is stalled in the Senate, would extend unemployment payments for an estimated 1.2 million Americans whose benefits have expired and would provide additional federal Medicaid assistance to states — including $85 million destined for Maine — that have already budgeted the money.
Snowe and Collins have supported both of those specific initiatives in the past. But the senators opposed other provisions of a much-larger bill that they said would harm small businesses and add to the federal debt.
Snowe first asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, nearly three weeks ago and again Friday in a letter to pull out the unemployment benefits extension from the larger bill.
For the third time in as many weeks, Senate Republicans on Wednesday night successfully filibustered the unemployment bill. But this time, Snowe and Collins were leaning in favor of the slimmed-down measure, and its passage seems assured next month once a replacement is in place for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who died Monday.
Snowe had earlier expressed frustration that the issue was not separated out from the controversial bill sooner.
“I think the burden should be on the government to turn the economy around … and we have an obligation to continue the extension of unemployment benefits until we see a reversal,” Snowe said.
The political reality suggests that a stripped-down bill will not include the $24 billion in Medicaid money states say they need to prevent public sector job cuts. But organizations in Maine are still trying to keep the pressure on Snowe and Collins to support the more comprehensive jobs bill.
“Failure to pass this legislation now is not an option,” Mark Sullivan of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal leaning think tank, said at a Wednesday rally in Portland. “The economic security of thousands of Maine families hangs in the balance. Maine’s fragile economic recovery is at risk. Congress needs to take action now before we slip even deeper into an economic recession.”
Maine’s two senators are also regarded as crucial votes in the effort to pass a comprehensive financial reform bill to help prevent the types of abuses on Wall Street that contributed to the economic collapse.
On Wednesday, Collins announced she would likely support the financial reform bill, as currently written, after House and Senate conference members agreed to drop $19 billion in new assessments on large banks. The compromise bill also incorporates several key provisions of a Wall Street reform bill introduced by Collins last year.
Earlier this week, both Snowe and Collins were among a group of senators who attended a meeting with President Obama at the White House to discuss “clean energy legislation” that includes the first federal attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
After the meeting, Snowe indicated that she could support a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide that applies only to power producers, which would be similar to the regional approach adopted by Maine and nine other states.
Collins, meanwhile, is co-sponsor of a bill with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050. The bill would establish a “cap-and-dividend” system, in which fossil fuel producers and importers would be required to purchase “carbon shares,” while energy consumers would receive rebates or dividends.
The two senators appear to relish their roles as potential swing votes.
Snowe described it as a “delicate balancing act.”
“I try to do everything I can to understand what is the best course of action and what would be in the best interest of the state and the country,” she said. “But it’s not always easy because everybody has different viewpoints.”
“It does present an opportunity for me to help shape major bills and establish policy,” said Collins. “It means I can watch out for Maine interests and make sure they are taken into consideration.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.