WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen of Maine had stern words for Washington last week as he returned to a Capitol he said is looked upon “with less admiration” by Americans tired of the entrenched partisanship.
“We have to rededicate ourselves to the principle that we have to find a way to work together,” Cohen said.
Cohen was honored Thursday night with a Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, a congressionally chartered institution. The award is given to individuals deemed to have “advanced greater public understanding and appreciation for freedom as represented by the U.S. Capitol and Congress.”
A Republican, Cohen represented Maine for 24 years in the U.S. House and then the U.S. Senate before President Clinton, a Democrat, asked him to join his Cabinet as defense secretary.
During remarks prior to the award presentation, House Minority Leader and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the Republican “a leader in his party but also a master of bipartisanship.”
When it was Cohen’s turn to speak, the Bangor native repeatedly touched on the topic of “freedom” and the symbol that the United States and the Capitol itself represent worldwide. But speaking to a crowd that included numerous lawmakers, Cohen suggested that image has been dimmed by a Congress regarded as mired in “paralysis and dysfunction.”
“The people now look at the Capitol with less admiration,” Cohen said. “The American people are angry. Our allies are confounded and confused.”
He added that the country cannot allow a “Closed for Business” sign to be hung on the Statue of Freedom standing atop the Capitol dome because of policymakers’ “unwillingness to reach across the aisle to find a way to move forward.”
“That’s impermissible. That’s unacceptable. That’s embarrassing for our country,” Cohen said.
He was introduced by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who volunteered for Cohen’s first congressional campaign as a college student and later worked in his office. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, also attended the ceremony.
Cohen received the award along with former U.S. Rep. and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a Democrat who served in the George W. Bush administration.
Cohen is the second Mainer – the other being former Sen. George Mitchell – to be honored by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in the 20 years that the organization has bestowed the Freedom Award. Past recipients include former Sen. Bob Dole, the late House Speaker Tom Foley, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
KING’S ‘GRANDE’ BUDGET PROPOSAL
Continuing his active role in major policy discussions, freshman Sen. Angus King arrived at Wednesday’s House-Senate budget negotiations hearing with his own proposal for resolving some of the vexing fiscal issues facing lawmakers.
In fact, King was the only member of the 29-person budget conference committee to put forward a more comprehensive proposal during the meeting.
King jokingly referred to it as a “grande” plan, a reference to the medium-sized drink at Starbucks.
“I think there’s something in there for everyone to dislike,” King told his fellow committee members.
Sure enough, some labor unions in Maine didn’t think King’s talk of “entitlement reforms” were so grand. But more on that later.
One of the biggest issues facing the committee is what to do with the sequestration budget cuts, which are $1.2 trillion in mandatory spending reductions imposed over 10 years. King proposed replacing roughly one-half of the remaining cuts, or $455 billion worth, through fiscal year 2021 while still reducing the federal deficit by the same amount.
In order to offset the cuts, King suggested eliminating $525 billion in “corporate tax loopholes” over 10 years. In turn, the Maine independent suggested using $325 billion of that revenue to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 32.5 percent.
King did not list which loopholes he would close. However, Democrats have discussed, among other things, eliminating tax breaks for companies that shift operations overseas and on some corporate stock schemes.
King said his plan would offset the sequester cuts with $200 billion in entitlement reforms. Again, the senator did not provide specifics, but Medicare and Social Security are the most commonly discussed entitlement programs.
In a follow-up, King’s office said the entitlement reforms he has in mind would target programs that would not affect beneficiaries or shift costs onto the states. One example given is requiring drug companies to provide rebates to the federal government on drugs used by dual eligibles to the tune of $141 billion over the decade. A “dual eligible” is a person who is qualified to receive both Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
The mere mention of “entitlement reforms” was enough to raise alarms at the Maine AFL-CIO, however. Labor and liberal groups across the country are gearing up for a major political effort to beat back any congressional attempts to change Medicare and Social Security.
“We feel very strongly that working people need more security, not less, so we should be taking steps to strengthen Social Security and Medicare,” said Maine AFL-CIO spokeswoman Sarah Bigney.
The labor federation promptly requested a meeting with Maine’s junior senator to discuss his plans.
“We definitely support the senator’s efforts to roll back the sequester cuts. Those cuts are hurting the economy,” Bigney said. “But seniors on a fixed income didn’t crash this economy and they shouldn’t be asked to fix it.”
FDA COMMENT PERIOD EXTENDED
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to give the public a few extra days to file comments on proposed rules that some in Maine fear could snag small farms in onerous red tape.
The Food Safety Modernization Act is intended to better protect the public from food-borne illnesses and help federal food safety investigators track down incidents more promptly. But some local farmers have raised concerns that aspects of the proposed rules were taken from practices at large-scale agriculture operations, not the small farms that dominate New England.
They warn that overly burdensome safety and prevention requirements could put farms out of business and impede the rapidly growing market in New England of farmers selling directly to consumers.
The FDA agreed to extend the public comment deadline until Nov. 22 at the request of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and several other lawmakers. The 1st District Democrat has been among those expressing strong concerns about potential impacts on small farms in Maine.
CHRISTIE MOST POPULAR ‘R’ IN MAINE
Most news reports on the Maine poll released last week by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling talked about the results for Maine’s gubernatorial and senatorial races. Here is one more interesting factoid that didn’t get as much attention.
Hillary Clinton was the clear winner of four different match-ups against potential Republican candidates for the White House in 2016: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Christie, who recently cruised to a second term in typically blue New Jersey, came the closest to Clinton, however. Clinton received more than 50 percent support against the other three potential opponents but came in at 47 percent against Christie, who had 39 percent with 15 percent undecided.
In every match-up, women helped pull up Clinton’s numbers. The Democrat did not break 50 percent against any of the Republicans among male respondents but ranged from 62 percent to 64 percent among women when stacked up against Cruz, Paul and Bush. But Clinton had only 54 percent among women when compared to Christie.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: