WASHINGTON — There’s no shortage of gloomy adjectives to describe the current political atmosphere in Washington. Polarized, partisan, poisonous all apply, and those are just a few courtesy of the letter “P.”
But might it also be improving?
The 16-day government shutdown suggests otherwise when looking at Congress as a whole. Yet on the Senate side there are some positive signs that moderation and compromise are at least attempting a return. And both of Maine’s senators – Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King – have been involved in those across-the-aisle conversations.
The most recent example happened Thursday when 10 Republicans joined all of the Democrats and the chamber’s two independents in voting to ban workplace discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Collins played a prominent role in shepherding the bill through the Senate’s complex parliamentary process.
It was the first time the bill passed the Senate after lingering in Congress for more than a decade. Despite the measure’s bipartisan support in the chamber, it appears unlikely to even be brought up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House.
Republicans and Democrats are also working together to address the issue of sexual assaults in the military. While there is no consensus over how aggressively Congress should meddle with the military’s judicial system, lawmakers from both parties are working together on various proposals.
The Senate also approved the most sweeping immigration reforms in decades earlier this year following intensive negotiations between a core group of Democrats and Republicans.
Then there are the various “gangs” and caucuses.
The group of 14 senators led by Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that worked on a bipartisan plan to end the government shutdown and avoid default met again last week to talk about budgetary issues, according to The Hill newspaper. The group – sometimes dubbed the “common sense” caucus or coalition – even grew by two members.
King is a member of that group and of an informal, bipartisan “former governors caucus” that plans to work together on issues.
Of course, any glaze of bipartisanship could melt away this week.
Senate Democrats will try again to win approval of Obama administration nominees, including several for a U.S. Court of Appeals bench considered second in importance only to the Supreme Court. There’s also the upcoming vote on Obama’s pick for the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen.
If Republicans filibuster the nominees, that will lead to more talk among Democrats about changing the Senate rules to prevent the minority party from blocking certain votes. And if that happens, Republicans predict a further meltdown of relations between the parties.
GAY RIGHTS POLITICS AT PLAY
Collins was lauded by gay rights groups for her role in the Senate passage Thursday of the Employment Non-Discrimination bill, or ENDA.
For instance, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, Human Rights Campaign, listed her among six “tireless champions” of the bill in the Senate. She was also one of five senators that President Obama specifically thanked in a statement after the vote.
Collins’ likely Democratic opponent next year was more tempered in her praise, however.
Shenna Bellows, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, was a major player in the campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine. Although considered one of the gay community’s most dependable Republican allies, Collins has not explicitly endorsed same-sex marriage.
The Bellows campaign pointed out that distinction – albeit somewhat subtly – in a statement released after the vote, suggesting that the Democrat may make this a campaign issue in a state that legalized same-sex nuptials last November.
“I appreciate – as we all should – that Susan Collins joined all of the Democrats in voting for ENDA today, but the measure falls short of full equality,” Bellows said. “I look forward to the day when both of Maine’s U.S. senators have the courage to stand up for full equality, including the freedom to marry, for all Americans. That will be one of the choices Mainers will have next November.”
MAINE FIRM ON TRACK FOR GRANT
A Portland nonprofit was one of 25 nationwide slated to receive federal grants to “expand innovative practices designed to improve student achievement.”
Spurwink Services competed against more than 600 other applicants for a share of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Investing in Innovation” grants. The Portland-based mental health and educational services agency operates more than 50 homes for children and adults around the country.
Spurwink must secure matching grants in order to receive a share of the $135 million available to the 25 finalists through the Department of Education program.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: