WASHINGTON — They may not have written the agreement that ended the most recent congressional deadlock, but the bipartisan group of senators who helped frame the final deal hope to stick together to potentially help avoid the next one.
“This isn’t the last crisis that we’re going to go through,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the group of 14 lawmakers that also included both of Maine’s senators. “But I think we have the framework for the kind of bipartisanship that the American people need and want.”
All four of Maine and New Hampshire’s senators were among the “group of 14” (they have yet to give themselves a formal name) who tried to find a bipartisan deal to reopen federal agencies and avoid a federal default. Those four also represented three political ideologies: Republican (Maine’s Susan Collins and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte), Democratic (New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen) and independent (Maine’s Angus King).
Collins started the whole thing when she floated a three-part plan after growing tired of watching the partisan posturing still in full swing days after 800,000 federal workers were furloughed. Ayotte and fellow Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska quickly joined, followed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
At the time, Republican and Democratic leaders were still ping-ponging proposals with little chance of passage across the Capitol and only getting together when summoned to the White House like it was the principal’s office. According to senators from both parties, the group of 14 nudged things along even if the final agreement negotiated between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., looked different from their proposal.
“They got together when things looked grim,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor before Wednesday night’s vote. “They said the Senate is going to lead. I am so grateful to them because even as things faltered, they were still at it, still working.”
Even before the Reid-McConnell agreement had been signed into law, members were asking what’s next for the group. King and Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., huddled immediately after the Senate vote and, according to King, “we all agreed that we are going to try to stay together.”
“It was good chemistry,” King said. “There was vigorous debate, but it was ultimately a very positive experience.”
Speaking at a Bangor event on Thursday, Collins said that “the 14 of us have decided we will stay together as a group to keep the pressure on,” according to the Bangor Daily News.
Ultimately, the official credit for the deal ending the shutdown showdown went to Reid and McConnell. But in an example of the power dynamics often at play in such high-stakes negotiations, legislative leaders both discouraged and encouraged the group along the way.
“It was very tricky because neither side wanted to get out ahead of their leadership but, on the other hand, we wanted to be sure there was a Plan B. We were the ‘Plan B Caucus,’ I guess,” King said. “At one point, some of the leadership called and said, ‘Stop it, what are you doing? You’re going to mess us up.’ And at another point we got a call that said, ‘Keep talking, you’re the only game in town.’”
NEXT UP: BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS
King will also play a role in the next big fiscal challenge facing the House and Senate.
Maine’s junior senator was one of 29 House and Senate members named to a “conference committee” – or negotiating group – charged with mashing together the starkly different House and Senate budget proposals for the current fiscal year and coming up with a compromise.
Understandably, ending the government shutdown and avoiding a default got most of the attention from Wednesday’s agreement. But this budget conference committee was an important – if overlooked – part of the deal.
The group will be attempting, once again, to find middle ground between Democrats and Republicans on such perennial issues of spending levels (tax increases versus program cuts) and deficit reductions. Along the way they will have to talk about what to do with the across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration” and “entitlement reform” – code for possible changes to programs such as Medicare.
If the committee fails, the American people may be hearing about another potential government shutdown and federal default in a few months.
The last time anything similar took place was in 2011, when a “supercommittee” tried to find bipartisan ground on spending and deficits. It failed and the result was continued gridlock, followed by the sequestration cuts, dueling budgets and, eventually, a government shutdown and a near default.
Let’s hope the talks are more fruitful this time.
MAINE-BORN NOMINEE FOR BENCH
In non-shutdown news, a high-profile attorney who has been nominated for one of the top bench seats in the country was actually born in Maine.
Patricia Ann Millett was nominated by President Obama to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court is sometimes called the second most-important bench in the country – after the U.S. Supreme Court, of course – because it hears appeals for complex cases involving the federal government. Four of the nine current Supreme Court justices served in the D.C. Circuit.
Millett was born in the small central Maine town of Dexter – located north of Skowhegan and Bangor – in 1963. Although she only spent the first few months of her life in the state, Millett’s mother was from Dexter and her family roots in Maine go back generations, according to biographical information.
She is now head of the Supreme Court division of the large D.C. law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. A Senate committee voted 10-8 to endorse her nomination, but she and two other nominees for the court have yet to be voted on by the full Senate.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: