Maine’s congressional delegation again on Thursday voiced support for another round of coronavirus aid as it remains stalled in Congress, although they outlined different priorities that could presage conflict or compromise if negotiations resume in December.
The situation is becoming dire as several key provisions of a March stimulus bill end in late December, including two unemployment programs that currently support most out-of-work Mainers. Coronavirus cases also continue to rise both in Maine and across the country. Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday the lack of supporting aid was one reason her administration is reluctant to reinstate prior restrictions meant to cut down on the spread of the virus.
Whether Congress will attempt a deal on a relief bill before year’s end remains unclear, with some indications that serious discussions may not begin until President-elect Joe Biden is seated on Jan. 20. Lawmakers must also reach a spending agreement before Dec. 11 to prevent a government shutdown, which could further complicate a stimulus measure.
Republicans have balked at the large price tags of Democratic relief proposals while opposing enhanced unemployment benefits and funding for state and local governments, two provisions that Democrats have deemed essential. Democrats, meanwhile, have rejected pared-back Republican proposals, saying they are too small to address the scope of the problem.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation showed somewhat more consensus, but still outlined different priorities, with Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, advocating another round of forgivable loans that she championed through the Paycheck Protection Program for hard-hit businesses, while Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District and the most liberal member of the delegation, pointing to unemployment benefits and mortgage forbearance.
Collins said in a Thursday statement that there was “no higher priority” than passing a coronavirus relief package along with bills to prevent a government shutdown in December, adding that she had met with colleagues from both parties about the issue.
But whether those talks will translate into legislation remains unclear. Bills floated by House Democrats — the more than $3 trillion HEROES Act put forward in the spring and a smaller fall sequel — languished after Senate Republicans refused to take them up. The Senate has not passed any new relief bill so far, with Democrats blocking several smaller Republican bills that had little chance in the lower chamber.
The House bills split Maine’s Democratic House representatives. Pingree, who voted for both, said the urgency to pass another bill before Biden takes office “cannot be overstated.” Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District voted against those measures, arguing they were too partisan to succeed. He reiterated that stance Thursday, advocating for a bipartisan proposal that focuses heavily on state and local aid and direct assistance to families.
He criticized both U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, saying not passing a bill “reflects poorly” on both parties but especially them as leaders. Congress should vote this year, he said.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, characterized Republicans’ offer in the Senate so far as a “take-it-or-leave-it bill” that “didn’t take this crisis seriously.” But he added that he planned to continue working with colleagues in both parties.
“There’s so much we need to do with this package, including extending enhanced unemployment benefits, increasing our support for small businesses, healthcare providers, and schools and providing additional funds for the state and local governments that have led the response to this crisis,” King said.
Collins, who was critical of Senate Democrats when negotiations broke down earlier this year, also highlighted funding for testing and vaccine development, local governments and schools, child care and the U.S. Postal Service, as well as targeted aid to several groups, including lobsterman, farmers and the aviation industry.