AUGUSTA – On Thursday, May 23, near the end of a bizarre week at the State House, Democratic lawmakers scheduled a news conference in the Hall of Flags, just steps from the office of Gov. Paul LePage.

That morning, the Legislature passed a bill that would pay $184 million owed to Maine hospitals by leveraging future liquor sales, a top priority for the governor. The bill included language to expand Medicaid for low-income Mainers, something the Democrats wanted.

But passing the bill wasn’t enough. Democratic leaders, led by Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves, wanted to publicly trumpet their legislation, even though they knew the victory would be short-lived. The Republican governor would never go along with an expansion of taxpayer-funded health care.

Shortly before that news conference, however, LePage and his staff hastily put together their own event at the same spot. Flanked by dozens of Republican lawmakers, LePage publicly signed a veto letter undoing the earlier vote, knowing full well that his party would sustain the veto.

Before Democrats could make their case, LePage hijacked the stage and cut them off at the knees.

That moment of political gamesmanship was the latest in a series of increasingly caustic back-and-forths between LePage and what he has referred to as “the loyal opposition.” It was illustrative of an environment where the opposing sides in Augusta would rather talk past each other than sit in a room away from the cameras and find compromise.

Maine’s hard-charging governor has never had a touchy-feely relationship with Democrats in the Legislature. He’s even called out and clashed with lawmakers in his own party.

But lately the relationship has turned nasty and personal. Two weeks ago LePage was turned away from speaking at a meeting of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. The following week, the two sides squabbled about a television monitor, playing political messages, that LePage set up outside his office without permission from legislative leaders. That led to LePage threatening to move out of his State House office over what he felt was censorship. After that, he declared that only he — and not his department heads — could address the budget-writing panel.

As divided as the two sides are on the hospital payments and Medicaid expansion, they might be further apart on the budget. If a budget is not passed by June 30, state government could shut down, something that hasn’t happened in 20 years.

Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, said a 2013 shutdown is a real possibility.

“Both sides are pretty dug in,” he said. “This is what divided government looks like.”

Five months into the 126th Legislature, there has been little compromise between the governor’s agenda and Democratic priorities when it comes to big or controversial issues. They haven’t moved on the budget, or the hospital bill, or Medicaid expansion. They are far apart on gun-related bills and on energy. The one major bipartisan piece of legislation has been on work-force development.

In most instances where the governor has put forward proposals, Democrats have voted them down, often at the committee level. When Democrats have used their majority status to pass legislation, LePage has taken out the veto pen, and Republicans in the House and Senate have upheld each one, including some that passed unanimously the first time.

As the stalemate wears on and as each side’s frustration plays out in public, one body in Augusta could determine whether anything productive can be achieved this session: Republicans in the Legislature.

The minority party must consider the calculus of sticking by the governor or siding with Democrats on important issues, which could make them look weak to some but might endear them to others who fear that Augusta is as broken as Washington, D.C.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, who is considered more moderate and pragmatic than Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, have challenged LePage in the past, but so far this session they have stuck by him. For better or worse, he’s still their biggest source of power.

“If Democrats in the majority think they can simply pass bills because they are in the majority, they are sadly mistaken,” Fredette said in an interview this past week.

Added Katz: “I think we want to be supportive of the governor whenever we can, but as the session gets closer to the end, people will vote their conscience.”

HOPES OF COOPERATION DASHED

During his successful campaign for governor in 2010, LePage often touted his ability to work with Democrats when he was mayor of Waterville.

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, one of the few Democrats who have gotten along with LePage, was among the hopeful. Cain, who was the House minority leader during LePage’s first two years, recalled a phone call she received from the governor shortly after the election.

“We agreed during that call that we would disagree on a lot of things, but we would disagree on the issues and not make it personal,” Cain said.

But things were much different in 2010 and 2011. The governor didn’t need the Democrats’ help. His party controlled both the House and Senate, which meant Republicans could approve legislation without worrying about a veto.

That unanimity led to the passage of a number of the governor’s major initiatives, including regulatory reform, health insurance reform, legislation that allowed for charter schools and a budget that included an income tax cut that eliminated $400 million in revenue over two years.

That budget now looms large over the latest budget — a debate where the ideological differences between LePage and the Democrats is most acute.

During the 125th Legislature, Republican lawmakers mostly backed LePage, but that trend stalled toward the end of the second regular session in the spring of 2012.

Republicans did not approve the governor’s budget as drafted and stripped a number of the most extreme provisions, such as deep cuts to General Assistance, before passage. Also, Republicans backed away from two different education initiatives — one that would have allowed public funds to be sent to private, religious schools and another that would have allowed students to choose a school regardless of where they live.

As the Legislature adjourned in 2012, LePage stayed behind while most lawmakers spent the summer and fall campaigning. Few, if any, Republican lawmakers got a boost on the trail from the governor.

On Election Day last November, Republicans, who only two years earlier had wrested control of the Legislature for the first time in three decades, saw Democrats take it right back. Some saw the results as a referendum on LePage.

In the wake of that shift, the big question would be: Can LePage work with a Democratic Legislature?

Both sides said all the right things at first.

“We must come together to find solutions to our fiscal challenges,” LePage said in a statement the day after the November election. “I stand ready to work with those who will put Mainers first and won’t allow the political rhetoric to continue.”

The next week, LePage canceled a meeting with the newly elected Democratic leaders in the House and Senate because he was upset that the Maine Democratic Party insisted on using a tracker to videotape him at all public events.

That dust-up drew national attention for a day or two, but it died down quickly.

During LePage’s State of the State address in February, his remarks were mostly conciliatory. Democrats said afterward that they were encouraged by his tone.

When Democratic leaders did finally meet with the governor on Feb. 13, each side characterized the meeting as pleasant.

Things have deteriorated since.

Melcher, the political scientist, said much of the animus stems from stark ideological differences, but some of the tension is just political posturing.

“I think Democrats felt that the (2012) election gave them a mandate to oppose LePage,” he said.

FRUSTRATION AND FIGHTS

For the first two years of LePage’s term, the Democratic leaders were Cain and Barry Hobbins, the former Senate leader who is now in the House. Both have nonconfrontational styles and got along well with LePage.

The selection of Alfond as Senate president and Eves as House speaker was a sign by Democrats that they wanted leaders who would stand up to LePage.

Alfond, who represents part of the Democratic stronghold of Portland, has been a frequent critic of the governor since the 2010 election. But they are also very different men.

LePage grew up poor and homeless and had to fight for everything. That upbringing has informed his political style. Alfond, the grandson of Harold Alfond, the late entrepreneur and philanthropist, had a much more privileged upbringing. LePage famously called Alfond a “little spoiled brat” during a radio interview in April 2012.

He has not called Eves any names publicly, but Eves, as the Democratic lead on the Health and Human Services Committee, was an increasingly vocal opponent of LePage’s proposed cuts to MaineCare in 2010-11.

LePage has shown no signs of compromise since Democrats took back the House and Senate. He hasn’t watered down his policy ideas and in some cases, he has introduced bills this session that were carbon copies of bills that failed to make it through a Republican Legislature.

As the session has progressed, Democrats have used their majority status to keep the governor in check. LePage has grown increasingly frustrated by lawmakers’ inaction on a number of bills, but mostly on his plan to repay the hospitals by renegotiating the state’s liquor sales contract.

Democrats liked the idea but they didn’t want to give LePage an easy victory with nothing in return. So they tied Medicaid expansion to the governor’s proposal.

Asked why they didn’t work with LePage on a compromise, Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan said, “He can’t be productive, because it’s his way or the highway.”

“Most meetings involving the governor involve him making some sort of scene where he storms out of the room,” McCabe continued. “He may come back; he may not. Usually there is a slamming of a fist on the table. It’s not a professional meeting.”

But Fredette said Democrats never came to Republican House and Senate leaders with their idea either.

“They could have engaged us in the conversation of Medicaid expansion. Instead they want to turn it into a series of press conferences and press releases,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was never a relationship established between Democratic and Republican leadership that was built upon trust and mutual respect.”

Fredette acknowledged that the Democrats’ “obsessive nature of wanting to fight with the governor” has soured their relationship with Republicans in the Legislature.

Melcher said some of the personality conflicts have overshadowed policy differences.

“The governor has done things that have made it hard for Democrats not to take personal and they have responded in kind,” Melcher said.

Two weeks ago, during a rare Sunday meeting of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, lawmakers met to address a letter sent just two days prior from the governor that warned DHHS might run out of money soon.

As it turns out, the warning was overstated and the fix was relatively simple.

LePage attended the meeting and requested an opportunity to speak. Dawn Hill, the Senate chairwoman of the committee, politely said no and the governor strongly objected. In the time since, LePage has defied legislative rules by placing a TV outside his office displaying various messages and calling out Democrats for failing to pass his budget. The TV has since been moved but LePage hasn’t let the issue go.

Last week, the governor said the treatment of him at the appropriations committee meeting and the TV flap demonstrated a “disturbing trend” of censorship.

“The minute we start stifling our speech, we might as well go home, roll up our sleeves and get our guns out,” he said during a brief interview with members of the news media on Wednesday.

The governor’s staff has declined to clarify that statement.

‘GUT-WRENCHING DECISIONS’

Supporters of LePage often acknowledge that he is not a polished public speaker, but they say he should be judged on substance, not style. But LePage is a lot more savvy than he comes across sometimes.

“The governor has a pragmatic streak,” Melcher said. “He has often said that he’s a good actor. Maybe that’s what this is.”

The statutory end date of the 126th Legislature’s first regular session is June 19, although that could be extended. Lawmakers have less than three weeks to find common ground.

“We’re definitely at a point in the session when a lot of posturing takes place and it’s based on true ideological differences,” Cain said. “That’s important. People need to know where you start and where you stand in the negotiations. But we still have to do the work.”

Katz agreed and said it’s unfortunate that things have gotten personal.

“There are times where we see a lot of thoughtful hard work and there are times when it feels like we are back in junior high,” he said.

Josh Tardy, the House Republican leader from 2007 to 2010 and now a lobbyist, said the looming threat of passing a budget often raises the stakes for both sides.

“Every budget I was involved with had gut-wrenching decisions,” he said.

Tardy admitted that he clashed with then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and with Democratic leaders in the Legislature but never to the point where he couldn’t work with them.

“I think everyone that takes the oath of office takes it seriously,” he said. “And when we get right down to it, the leaders are going to roll up their sleeves and do the right thing.”

Cain said she thinks that at the very least, the appropriations committee will find consensus on a budget that members can bring to the governor.

“We have to have a unified product to bring to the governor,” she said. “If we want Republicans to take our ideas seriously, we have to take theirs seriously.”

Fredette is confident, too, that a budget will be passed to avoid a shutdown.

Asked whether his party will override one of the governor’s vetoes in the days and weeks ahead, Fredette said, “That’s a question that remains to be seen.”

Cain said she understands why Republicans are upholding LePage’s vetoes.

“They still have to make the decision to override the chief executive and his position on a bill and that can feel personal,” she said. “At some point, there is going to be a bill that’s important enough for us to override.”

No one can predict where the compromise lies. LePage and the Republicans are unlikely to reverse the income tax cuts, something Democrats have asked for, and Democrats — and maybe even some Republicans — are unlikely to go along with the governor’s budget, which includes deep cuts to municipal revenue sharing.

Melcher said he thinks moderate Republicans have the most to lose at the moment because they have to either side with the governor on issues they don’t fully support or risk looking weak by joining the Democrats.

The governor visited the House Republican caucus meeting on Wednesday. Fredette would not share what LePage said but the governor left the room to sustained applause. They are still in his corner.

Democrats probably won’t be in the same room with LePage anytime soon and House Majority Leader Seth Berry said Democratic leaders might have missed their chance.

In January, LePage put up dinner with him at the Blaine House as an auction item to raise money for the Legislature’s scholarship fund.

Berry said he, Eves, Alfond and Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall decided to bid.

“I thought if we could just break bread with him and get to know him on a more personal level, it might be easier to work together,” Berry said.

The Democrats agreed to bid as high as $800 and they thought that would be enough. But medical marijuana advocates, who Berry later learned were not going to be outbid no matter what, won dinner with LePage for $1,000.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell