WASHINGTON – Maine members of Congress on Wednesday were still examining the details of the final budget deal that would cut $38 billion in federal spending this year.

The state’s Republican senators are leaning toward voting for the agreement. Democrat Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd Congressional District, was still reviewing the deal and its impact on Maine, while Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, 1st Congressional District said she will vote no.

Congressional leaders and the White House forged the agreement just in time to avert a federal shutdown last week. The House is expected to vote on the bill today, while the Senate should act by Friday.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Wednesday also were turning their attention to the looming budget battles ahead, including whether to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit before the government defaults on obligations in July.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was happy that the 2011 budget deal restores funding to Head Start, and lessens cuts to family planning, transportation and community development block grants. But cuts to Agriculture Department funding — $504 million from the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program, for example — would have been better off made elsewhere, such as to subsidies for corn-based ethanol production, she said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Tuesday that the bill moved “in the right direction in terms of (spending) reductions” and is pleased that it rejects cuts to Planned Parenthood.

Michaud didn’t say Wednesday how he will vote on this year’s budget. Pingree said she will vote against it.

“The priorities of this (2011 final budget) bill are all wrong and it puts the burden on the most vulnerable,” Pingree said. “It cuts LIHEAP (low-income home energy assistance program) for low income home owners and a nutrition program for mothers and children, while spending more in Afghanistan and Iraq. This isn’t a spending bill I can vote for.”

Originally, House Republicans wanted to slash funding for community development block grants by 60 percent — the grants go toward housing, infrastructure and other improvements in mostly low-income neighborhoods. But Maine community development programs will still see some cuts, said Mike Baran, director of the state’s office of community development.

The money the state receives — which doesn’t include some funding paid directly to distressed areas in Portland, Lewiston and other communities — will be about $11.5 million, down from $13.7 million last year.

Typically, the state has been able to pay for about 40 projects annually — that will be cut by half a dozen, Baran said.

Maine community health centers feared that a $1 billion cut proposed by House Republicans would devastate centers such as the one in Portland, which receives $650,000 of its $1.5 million annual budget from the grants.

The final deal cuts $600 million but leaves intact $1 billion in funding guaranteed the centers by the health care reform law.

Still, advocates say that takes away money needed for future expansion needs and to cover a rising demand for services for a mostly low-income population.

The budget deal was a mixed bag on environmental issues, advocates say.

Knocked out of the final bill were House GOP proposals that would have blocked the EPA from acting on climate change and other regulations, though the agency’s overall budget for the year was cut by 16 percent, including money for the land and water conservation fund. It’s unclear whether that will mean cuts in projects in Acadia National Park, but “it certainly isn’t good news for protecting some of Maine’s most treasured places going forward,” said Nathaniel Meyer of Environment Maine.

Meanwhile, Obama administration officials say failing to raise the debt ceiling before it reaches its limit would result in a financial catastrophe. But both Snowe, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, and Collins say they favor using the looming debt-ceiling vote to leverage agreements to limit future spending.

Collins says she is considering backing a bipartisan bill – authored by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee – that would cap federal spending at a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product.

Snowe said that, “Raising the debt ceiling is a significant event. There has to be a reduction plan of some kind. If we raise the debt ceiling in a vacuum what message is that going to send to the bondholders about whether we are serious about grappling with the long-term debt?”

But Snowe said there is no reason to bump up against the July 8 deadline.

“We’re all adults the last time I checked. It requires mature leadership,” Snowe said at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:
jriskind@mainetoday.com