Maine’s U.S. senators found themselves in the cross-hairs of a furious lobbying campaign Friday, as interest groups sought to protect spending provisions in the economic stimulus package.
Educators, contractors, environmentalists and physicians staged press conferences Friday and urged their members to contact Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
The Maine Education Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees said $166 million in funding for education and Head Start in Maine could be removed from the bill as part of a compromise negotiated by a bipartisan group that included Collins.
Greenpeace launched an e-mail campaign urging its members to contact the Maine senators because the compromise could remove more than $4.5 billion in funding nationally for energy efficiency, research and science programs.
“It’s crucial that those portions don’t get cut,” said David Pomerantz, the New England regional organizer for Greenpeace. “We’re definitely urging Sen. Collins to leave the energy provisions intact.”
At the same time, the Maine chapter of Associated General Contractors held a press conference at the Portland International Jetport to draw attention to funding for construction projects.
The group said Maine stands to get $316 million for transportation projects if the stimulus is approved as written, creating 7,680 jobs in construction or in other economic sectors.
Friday evening, a tentative deal was struck on a reworked stimulus package totaling roughly $780 billion. Details of the new plan were not immediately available, so it was unclear what projects got trimmed.
In Washington, telephone calls were coming in at such a rate Friday afternoon that the Senate network was malfunctioning, transferring calls at random to the wrong offices.
“These calls are coming from all over the country,” said Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Collins, “and they’re coming in to our offices in Portland as well as Washington.”
Snowe’s office has received several thousand calls in the past week, many of them from residents from states other than Maine, said Claire Howard, deputy press secretary.
The staff has been “inundated, completely overwhelmed,” she said.
She said many of the calls are in response to a national television ad campaign urging people to call Snowe and Collins and urge them to support the president’s stimulus plan.
The two Maine lawmakers are at the center of the storm because both have taken a fairly moderate stance on the stimulus package. Both had indicated that they would vote for the Democratic-sponsored plan if objectionable provisions were removed.
The Senate includes 56 Democrats and two independents who normally vote with them. To avoid procedural moves that would block action, Democrats need 60 votes on a bill.
Underlining the key role Collins and Snowe are playing in the debate, both were invited to the White House for private meetings with Obama on Wednesday.
Collins, a member of the Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., were leading a bipartisan group of about 20 political moderates who were working to scale back the $920 billion stimulus bill to about $800 billion, the figure originally sought by President Obama.
The group took aim at spending provisions that, in its view, would not provide significant or rapid economic returns and therefore don’t belong in a stimulus measure.
Collins has raised concern about a provision to resod the National Mall in Washington and pay for cyber-security research in homeland security, as well as $900 million for pandemic flu research and $75 million for smoking cessation programs.
Snowe, who has not been part of the group of 20, raised questions about proposals to spend $6 billion for federal building renovations and $1 billion for the Census Bureau.
Snowe serves on the Finance Committee, which wrote the tax provisions in the bill. On Friday, she met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the committee to discuss trimming the tax breaks in order to lower the cost of the package.
“The total reductions sought by leadership will closely resemble the amount I recommended to the president during our meeting on Wednesday,” Snowe said.
The National Education Association, which spearheaded the education lobbying campaign Friday, issued a statement that the bipartisan group of Senate moderates wants to remove $54 billion in school spending from the stimulus package, including $166 million for Maine.
Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association, said that if Maine doesn’t get that money, communities might have to lay off teachers or other educators to balance their budgets.
“One way that the stimulus could have an immediate impact would be to fund education, because education is such a large part of the budget in many states,” he said.
Portland Press Herald writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.