State Rep. Les Fossel of Alna has a simple response to fellow Republican lawmakers who ask him why, week in and week out, he sits down with “those people who aren’t like we are.”

They mean Democrats.

“I’m always going to places where I feel uncomfortable,” Fossel explained after just such a meeting Friday. “Because that’s where I learn.”

Welcome to the Moderate Caucus, a loosely organized group of lawmakers who find the time once a week to do what many on the far right and far left flanks of the Legislature consider part heresy and part waste of time: Sit down over lunch and simply talk to the other side.

“There are no bomb throwers,” said Fossel. “These are not people who are trying to push the opposition’s face in the mud. They’re trying to make things work.”

Which, in the final hectic days of this hotly contested legislative session, is much easier said than done.

Over on the right, the Common Sense Caucus spent a good chunk of last week rounding up 51 signatures for a letter it planned to deliver to legislative leaders and members of the Appropriations Committee that leaves virtually no room for compromise.

“We’re holding on the tax cuts,” vowed Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, who chairs that group, referring to the $200 million or so in tax reductions woven into the proposed $6.1 billion biennial state budget. “That’s the one thing that we’re really firm on.”

It’s no idle threat — between now and the fast-approaching June 15 end of the legislative session, the budget must be approved by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Fifty-one votes is the exact number needed to derail the spending package in the House.

Meaning that the Common Sense Caucus, whose membership includes more than a few products of Maine’s tea party movement, is choosing this ever-so-delicate moment to draw a deep line in the sand?

“Well, that’s the message we want to send, yes,” replied Crafts.

Over on the left, the Working Families Caucus last week alerted Democratic leaders that it can’t go along with those tax cuts if it means gutting various social services — particularly those that will be reduced or eliminated outright through some $18 million in annual cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

“Exorbitant tax cuts just don’t make sense to us,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who chairs the Working Families Caucus. “I understand the interest in sending up some tax cuts to try and stimulate the economy, but we want to make sure those tax cuts are for people who really need those tax cuts.”

Which brings us back to the Moderate Caucus, which hasn’t sent any letters out to anybody.

Instead, its members simply talk … and listen … and talk … and listen …

The group’s email list, according to Fossel, contains just over 50 names. But Friday’s session drew only eight lawmakers — Fossel blamed the low turnout (attendance has been as high as 40) on the fact that the Senate was still in session and that the increasingly frenetic legislative schedule leaves less time for non-essential meetings.

This gathering, it should also be noted, wasn’t equally bipartisan — of the eight House members who showed up, Fossel and Rep. Jane Knapp of Gorham were the only Republicans.

Still, the freewheeling conversation was unlike most you’re likely to hear around the State House. At one point, for example, the Democrats noted that an increase in, say, the cigarette tax could easily cover the pending reductions to the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

“All I can say is there are an enormous number of people on my side who swore not to raise taxes,” said Fossel, munching on a lunch of microwaved popcorn. “And that includes me.”

“But you passed the health care bill that did raise taxes — I just want to be sure you understand that,” replied Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, referring to a new $4 monthly surcharge on every health insurance beneficiary in the state that is part of the health-reform package.

“Those are fees,” countered Fossel. “Fees aren’t taxes, c’mon!”

Up went the Democrats’ eyebrows. Fossel downed a few more pieces of popcorn and smiled.

“What part of hypocrisy don’t you understand?” he asked to a roomful of laughter. “Now what you guys get to do is observe hypocrisy in action. That’s what we did for 40 years!”

It’s hardly the kind of banter that endears a legislator to his party leaders. In fact, as Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, later noted, regular attendance at meetings like this is not recommended for those looking to climb the leadership ladder in either party.

“You can be a good soldier, if that’s what you choose to be,” said Pilon. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

Then again, how much of a difference the Moderate Caucus makes is clearly debatable. Friday’s session produced no strategy, no deals, no behind-the-scenes promises that I’ll vote this way if you vote that way.

But listening to this handful of legislators share their differences face-to-face and, yes, even manage to laugh about them, you couldn’t help but suspect they went back to their partisan enclaves a tad more enlightened than those who would never, ever, make the trip.

Fossel, who co-chairs the caucus along with Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, likens the experience to that contest they sometimes hold in the local mom-and-pop store where you guess how many jelly beans there are in the large jar on the counter.

The best way to win, he noted, is not simply to eyeball the jar and guess. Rather, you ask as many people as you can how many beans they think are in the jar — and average all the answers.

“That’s how the Legislature works,” Fossel said. “And if you refuse to ask a lot of questions, you’re never going to get good results.”

Just before they broke up, Fossel announced that the Moderate Caucus will meet again Monday — right around the time the Appropriations Committee is expected to wrap up its work on the $6.1 billion budget.

That’s a lot of jelly beans.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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