WASHINGTON — Maine’s U.S. senators split on Thursday as Democrats scuttled a scaled-back GOP coronavirus rescue package on Thursday, saying the measure shortchanged too many pressing needs as the pandemic continues its assault on the country.
The mostly party-line vote capped weeks of wrangling over a fifth relief bill that all sides say they want but are unable to deliver. The bipartisan spirit that powered earlier aid measures has given way to election-season political combat. The 52-47 vote fell well short of what was needed to overcome a filibuster and is likely to end hopes for virus relief before the November election.
The $500 billion measure is roughly half the size of legislation promoted by Republican leaders this summer, but was too big for most conservatives. Instead, the bill was stripped back to focus on school aid, jobless benefits and help for small businesses. It maximized Republican support while alienating Democrats, who said it would leave out far too many vulnerable people.
The result was a predictable impasse as the congressional session limps to its pre-election close. It’s becoming plain that all Congress will do before the Nov. 3 election is pass legislation to avert a government shutdown. The outcome of the election promises to have an outsize impact on what might be possible in a post-election lame-duck session, with Democrats sure to press for a better deal if Democrat Joe Biden unseats President Donald Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, predicted that Thursday’s GOP defeat would prompt Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, back to the negotiating table, as an earlier filibuster in March helped make the $2 trillion rescue bill more generous. He called the measure “emaciated” and “filled with poison pills.”
McConnell crafted the measure to permit his GOP colleagues to go on record in favor of popular provisions such as another round of loans under the Paycheck Protection Program for smaller businesses, help for schools to reopen and supplemental jobless benefits. He again blasted Democrats on Thursday, saying they are still pushing a liberal wish list and are willing to scuttle provisions with widespread backing to deny Trump a victory.
Maine’s senators split on the measure, with Sen. Susan Collins backing fellow Republicans’ stance and independent Sen. Angus King voting with the Democrats he caucuses with.
Collins gave a mixed assessment of the package, noting that it contained more of the business loans that she championed but neglected local aid, but she urged “colleagues on both sides of the aisle to set aside partisan politics and to come together.” King said the bill was “more focused on creating the illusion of action than on actually addressing the problems at hand.”
The Republican senator is in a heavily targeted re-election campaign featuring House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage. A Gideon spokesperson said the candidate found the bill “woefully inadequate” and said “Sara would have joined Senator King in pushing for more relief to keep people safe.”
The stalemate is politically risky for all sides heading into the fall election, which will decide not only the presidency, but also control of Congress. While nationwide coronavirus cases appear to be at a plateau, there is still widespread economic hardship and social unease in homes, schools and businesses affected by closures.
The Republican measure in Thursday’s test vote would have provided $258 billion in business loans, $105 billion to help schools reopen, enact a shield against lawsuits for businesses and others moving ahead to reopen, create a scaled-back $300-per-week supplemental jobless benefit, write off $10 billion in debt at the U.S. Postal Service.
This story was written by Andrew Taylor and Lisa Mascaro of the Associated Press. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed.