A day after U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and a group of fellow Republicans met with President Joe Biden to discuss coronavirus relief, Democrats in her chamber on Tuesday advanced a budget measure that could be the vehicle for their $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal.
It casts more doubt on the Maine senator’s effort to inject her party into a deal. She was critical of the Democrats’ move in a Tuesday interview with the Bangor Daily News, though she did not rule out voting for a larger package than Republicans suggested and indicated some of her priority items as she looks to affect the end bill. Here are the five highlights.
She called the White House ahead of Tuesday’s vote, saying it will make it difficult for the package to get bipartisan support.
Democrats moved forward with the budget reconciliation process on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Collins and nine other Republican senators talked with Biden, a meeting after which Collins told reporters she was “hopeful” about a bipartisan agreement.
The Maine senator said the Tuesday budget vote “certainly does not advance the goal of reaching a compromise on a coronavirus package” and signaled that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, wanted to go down a “partisan path.”
“I called the White House today to talk with one of the top aides to the president to ask why they were proceeding when both the White House spokesperson and our group described the two hour meeting last night in positive terms and said that it had been productive to learn more about the rationale for each other’s package,” Collins said.
She did not rule out voting for Democrats’ plan in the end, even if it is larger than one she advanced, but was unsure about her Republican colleagues.
Collins said she would be open to voting for a package with a price tag higher than the $618 billion deal she and other Republican senators proposed, saying that total “was not a maximum” but a “good faith effort to address unmet needs” mostly around vaccines and testing and she hoped Biden would return to them with a counteroffer.
“This is not a final offer. It’s a negotiation,” Collins said.
She said she thought there were enough votes in the Senate for the proposal she helped put forward, saying she would support passing it this week if Democrats would accept it.
“I think there are others within the Republican caucus who would support the $618 billion package even though they’re not happy with some of what we included. Some of them think it’s excessive. Some would think that there’s no need for any additional money. A fair number think that the $160 billion is sufficient,” she said.
Asked whether she would vote for a bill that came through the reconciliation process, Collins said she still hoped lawmakers could negotiate a bipartisan bill, saying it was the “quickest way” to get aid to those in need compared to the longer reconciliation process.
“It is not an easy process and as I told the president last week, the quickest way to get coronavirus relief out is through a bipartisan compromise,” she said.
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She said the White House is looking into more money for her small business loan program.
Collins said she suggested to Biden during her White House meeting that the Paycheck Protection Program be used as the vehicle for funding small businesses rather than a new fund proposed in his deal. That program pumped $2.5 billion into Maine in different rounds from last year through late January, with the current iteration targeted to smaller, hard-hit businesses.
“That was one of the issues that the White House aide talked to me about on the phone today, and she said that the president, after the meeting was over, instructed his staff to look at the PPP as an alternative to creating a brand new program,” she said.
She wants local aid included in the package despite setting it aside in her recent proposal.
Collins sponsored legislation last summer to provide aid to state and local governments, but did not include it in the $618 billion proposal she and nine other Republicans rolled out earlier this week. She said she still favors aid to municipalities but was skeptical of aid to states, citing a JP Morgan study that showed, on average, state revenues were down in 2020 by less than 0.5 percent relative to the previous year.
“What I’m hearing from towns and cities all over Maine is they’re beginning to really struggle and are leaving vacant essential service providers such as police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, public works employees, sanitation workers, and that needs to be rectified,” Collins said. “So I am still a strong advocate for local aid that would go directly to our municipalities and I hope that will be included in the final package.”
She wants a better accounting of unspent stimulus money to date.
Collins said she hoped the Biden administration would come back with information about unspent money from the five relief bills passed last year. For example, one bipartisan package that she signed onto in December cited $560 billion in unspent money from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion stimulus passed in March. Money from the last stimulus package passed in December is still being doled out, including $200 million in rent relief for Maine alone.
“When we checked yesterday, of the $4 billion for programs to assist with homelessness, less than 2 percent has been spent, and the president is now requesting another $5 billion,” Collins said. “I want to figure out, ‘Why isn’t the Department of Housing and Urban Development getting that money out?’”