WASHINGTON – There was no tone of triumph or sense of satisfaction in the voice of Sen. Susan Collins when the Maine Republican said in a phone interview Tuesday morning that she would vote later that day for the federal debt ceiling deal.

She used the word “frustrating” to describe the partisan gridlock and inflexibility that led the nation to the precipice of default on the federal government’s debt obligations. And while Collins voted to, in her words, avert an economic disaster, she cast that vote with deep reservations about a deal that she feared could cause too-deep cuts to defense spending and Medicare services if all it yielded was yet another impasse.

A bipartisan Maine majority voted for the agreement to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling through the end of 2012 in exchange for as much as $2.4 trillion in spending cuts — $917 billion now and up to $1.5 trillion later this year through the work of a 12-member congressional committee.

The so-called super committee of six Republicans and six Democrats will have the power to offer a package of spending cuts and possibly new tax revenue that the rest of Congress, by a simple majority, will have to accept or reject unchanged.

But in the “yes” votes of Collins, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, there was bipartisan frustration with the process that produced a flawed deal.

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine voted “no,” but she didn’t sound all that different from the lawmakers who decided a “yes” vote was a necessary evil, as she criticized a lack of balance in a deal that contained only cuts, no new revenue.

It’s probably a good thing that none of the Maine lawmakers headed home for the August recess ready to take a victory lap, because none of them is likely to hear many words of praise from constituents.

“Frustrating” is among the more gentle words that Maine lawmakers are likely to hear this month.

A national poll last week by the Pew Research Center/Washington Post, asking people to sum up their feelings about the negotiations, found the most common words to be “ridiculous,” “stupid” and “disgusting.” Not far behind were words like: “childish,” “disappointing,” yes, “frustrating,” as well as “joke,” “pathetic,” “terrible” and “poor.”

The debt debate tarnished everyone’s image, Pew reported, from President Obama to Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

The House Republicans won the initial battle not to include tax revenue in the debt deal, but Pew found that congressional Republicans emerged more tarnished than Democrats.

For pragmatic Mainers, who are used to Democrats and Republicans being able to talk to each other in the state Legislature, the partisan rancor and intransigence over the debt deal was not a happy sight, said John Baughman, associate professor of politics at Bates College in Lewiston.

“It’s not as if Maine is immune from partisanship and posturing, but historically that doesn’t fly as well here,” Baughman said.

Collins and Snowe said in interviews last week that new revenue should be on the table when the super committee does its work, with both citing examples such as ethanol subsidies and tax breaks for the largest oil companies.

And both want to look at an overhaul of the tax code, with Collins raising the issue of eliminating unfair advantages held by major corporations that pay taxes at lower rates than many smaller businesses.

But Republican leaders from the House and Senate may not select lawmakers for the committee who are willing to consider the type of balance Maine’s lawmakers contemplate. And will Democratic leaders put members on the committee who are willing to consider cutting entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare down the road?

Snowe is incensed that lawmakers left it to the super committee to do the work that the entire Congress should be doing.

“How the committee will go about their job remains to be seen … (But) it is hard to imagine they could undertake a full scale effort of tax reform in conjunction with everything else they have to address,” Snowe said.

While Medicare benefits are ostensibly protected, as are Social Security benefits, automatic cuts that would be triggered if the super committee failed to get its recommendations approved could strike harshly at rural Medicare providers, hitting hard in Maine, and at defense spending, including at places like Bath Iron Works, Collins says.

Bates’ Baughman said Mainers’ pragmatic outlook extends to fiscal policy and the tough choices that must be made over what federal spending to cut, including entitlement programs, and whether additional revenue should be part of the mix.

In a state with large numbers of elderly residents and veterans, many Mainers realize that including more tax revenue can reduce cuts to needed programs.

“Mainers, like Americans everywhere, would like to pay less taxes, but the question is where are the tradeoffs,” Baughman said. “That’s why Snowe and Collins are willing to put revenues on the table even if that is unpopular with their own party and some Mainers.”

Collins said she believes that tax reform will be on the table as the special committee does its work, and that the severity of across-the-board cuts will help spur another look at new tax revenue.

That doesn’t mean that many Republicans, including Snowe and Collins, will agree with Democrats about allowing the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans to expire — or that Obama and Democrats won’t be willing to fight for that stance.

Collins acknowledges that she is unsure whether House Republicans will agree to any new tax revenue at all, but, “I think that the desire to avoid those cuts will be sufficient to allow the special committee to do its work, and its work will almost surely include tax reform.”

Collins does credit the House Republican anti-tax hard-liners for “changing the debate in Washington and focusing like a laser on the need to cut spending.”

How will it all work out?

Collins started to say she’s “optimistic that it will,” but then conceded that optimism may be too strong a word and left it at: “We will have to see how it works out.”

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

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