Republican U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine cast key votes Wednesday to break a GOP filibuster and advance a bill that will provide the state with an estimated $116 million in additional federal aid.
The aid is part of $26 billion to help states ease their severe budget problems and — advocates said — stop the layoffs of nearly 300,000 teachers, firefighters, police and other public employees.
Maine officials praised the bill’s progress, but were quick to point out while it helps, it does not solve the state’s budget problems.
“We still have a gap of $23 million for the current fiscal year,” Gov. John Baldacci said in an interview. “But this is substantially better than we would have had without this action.”
Both senators said a major reason they voted for the package was the effect on the state, which had built its budget based on the expectation that Congress would extend extra aid to the states through the Medicaid program.
Baldacci said the Senate passed measure would provide the state an estimated $77 million in additional Medicaid funds. The measure also provides an estimated $39 million in aid to Maine schools. But Baldacci said exactly how that will be distributed will be up to federal rules.
Baldacci praised Snowe and Collins putting the needs of Mainers above partisanship and casting the votes that ended debate on the measure. The legislation advanced by a 61-38 tally that all but ensured it would pass the Senate on Thursday.
But the fate of the Senate bill was far from certain earlier this week as both Snowe and Collins objected to earlier versions of the legislation, raising concerns about how it was structured and funded.
A vote scheduled for Monday had been postponed after an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office showed the measure would add to the federal deficit.
Snowe and Collins also had concerns about cuts to Navy shipbuilding accounts since the Bath Iron Works in Maine is so essential to the state’s economy. Majority Leader Harry Reid got rid of those proposed cuts Monday night.
After the vote, both senators and Baldacci called for the House to interrupt its six-week August recess and pass the Senate legislation. Hours later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced she would call the House back next week to approve the measure to get it to Obama for his signature before most schools reopen.
“I will be calling the House back into session early next week to save teachers’ jobs and help seniors and children,” Pelosi announced in a message from her Twitter account.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said that is the right thing to do and said he will vote for the aid package.
“I appreciate that the Senate is moving forward on this critical assistance and has found a way to offset its cost,” he said in a statement. “It will help save jobs and ensure continued access to health care for many Mainers.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, also said she will support the package when it comes to a vote.
“Passing this extension is not only going to save thousands of jobs across Maine, it also will help take the pressure off local taxpayers, who are already struggling in this tough economy,” she said in a statement. “The legislation also closes an outrageous loophole that has been giving foreign corporations a huge tax break that they don’t deserve.”
The current measure is heavily backed by unions for teachers and public employees, key allies of the Democratic Party. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ran ads Wednesday in four Maine newspapers urging Collins and Snowe to help break the filibuster.
“It’s important to be able to provide this support to the states at a very critical time,” Snowe said after the vote. “I think it also should be done with the understanding that the states are going to have to begin to make some tough decisions.”
What was planned as a lobbying effort in Bangor on Wednesday turned into a “thank you” session outside the offices of the two senators.
Several state lawmakers, local government officials and advocates praised the votes. Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry said the Senate votes showed Snowe and Collins had their priorities in order.
“Congress needs to be focused on one thing right now: jobs,” he said. “Getting people back to work is the only way we are going to turn this economy around.”
If the measure is finally passed, it does not mean state agencies will stop their effort to identify $100 million in cuts. Baldacci said he is continuing that effort as a way to help the next governor and Legislature identify possible spending cuts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.