WASHINGTON — Both of Maine’s Republican U.S. senators voted today for a landmark agreement to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling.

As expected, the Senate approved the deal by a wide margin, 74-26.

Sen. Susan Collins said this morning she would vote in favor of the measure, while Sen. Olympia Snowe didn’t reveal her position until she took to the Senate floor to cast her vote in favor of the deal to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling through 2012 in return for some $2.4 trillion in planned cuts over 10 years, $917 billion now and $1.5 trillion by the end of the year.

Reps. Mike Michaud, D-2nd, and Chellie Pingree, D-1st, had not said how they would vote ahead of time, either, before Michaud voted “yes” Monday night and Pingree voted “no” on the debt ceiling deal.

The Maine Democrats’ split was emblematic of a split House Democratic caucus, with 95 Democrats voting yes and 95 no. A group of House GOP conservatives also voted against the bill, which passed 269-161.

But while both Snowe and Collins voted in favor of the deal, both expressed concerns about the impact of some of the cuts – particularly in the areas of defense spending and Medicare services – and about the creation of a special 12-member committee that will have the power to offer a package of recommendations for the promised $1.5 trillion in cuts later this year.

The House and Senate can only vote on those recommendations, if the committee can reach them, in their entirety, without lawmakers being able to offer any changes.

Snowe said in a phone interview after the vote that in her final analysis on how to vote the most important factor was “ultimately the fact that this is a crucial time in our economic history. We had to avoid a default” on U.S. obligations. “We averted a catastrophe for America and all Americans when it comes to interest rates and driving up the costs of borrowing.”

Snowe also said the deal “was the first step” in regaining control over “out-of-control” federal spending.

But Snowe said it is a sign of a dysfunctional Congress and political system that a final-hour compromise had to be cobbled together just ahead of today’s default deadline, and she said the work of the so-called super committee is work that should be done by the full House and Senate and in the bodies’ regular committee process.

Snowe also worries that automatic triggers for across-the-board cuts if Congress doesn’t pass the super committee’s recommendations will hit too hard at defense spending and at providers of Medicare services, particularly in states with large rural areas like Maine, despite the fact that the deal aims to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Snowe also said she believes some tax revenues should be part of the mix when the committee looks at further cuts, noting she has supported repeals of various tax subsidies, such as for ethanol production and major oil companies. On the other hand, she is leery of what the super committee can do to pursue overall reform of the tax code, which is what Snowe said is really needed.

“I don’t know what kind of tax reform they can pursue that would be adequate and understand the ramifications, frankly,” Snowe said. “You have to make sure it is the right kind of tax reform that doesn’t ultimately tax middle-income America.”

Collins said in a phone interview this morning, before the vote, that “although the plan is by no means perfect it does represent a step in the right direction. It averts a default which would be disastrous for our economy and cause interest rates to spike, which would hurt everyone. It puts real controls on spending and makes significant reductions in our long-term debt and protects Social Security.”

But Collins said she still has “some serious reservations” about the plan. She too does not support the plan’s creation of the so-called super committee.

Collins said she would like for Congress to have the ability to amend the work of the committee. She also is concerned about the possibility that an automatic, across-the-board cut could be triggered if the committee’s work is not approved by the House and Senate.

Those automatic cuts would fall disproportionately on defense spending and on Medicare providers, particularly rural providers such as hospitals and nursing homes in states like Maine, Collins said.
So while the plan supposedly protects Social Security and Medicare benefits, Collins said she is concerned that in reality it could harm Medicare beneficiaries by driving away providers.

Still, averting a default was crucial to avoiding economic catastrophe and to giving “job creators” the certainty they need at least in the short run to make business plans and hire new workers, Collins said.

Collins also said that she believes the super committee can and should look at new tax revenues as part of the $1.5 trillion in savings, something many House Republicans and conservative Senate Republicans have eschewed, through cutting “worthless” subsidies such as the one supporting ethanol production and subsidies to the major oil companies and through making corporate tax rates more fair. Collins questioned why a huge corporation like General Electric pays a lower tax rate than many small corporations in Maine.

The debate over whether tax revenues should be considered, not just more cuts, is going to be heated as the committee does its work. The plan approved today contains no new tax revenues, just cuts, and calls for a vote on a balanced budget amendment.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]