WASHINGTON — While long-term unemployment insurance dominated Congress’ first week of the 2014 session, there is a host of other upcoming issues that will affect everything from how much Mainers pay for flood insurance to food stamp funding in a state with high food insecurity rates.
Democrats’ push to extend unemployment insurance will top the agenda again this week.
Despite ending on a partisan note, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – including Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a potential swing vote – are still expressing optimism that a deal is possible.
More than 3,000 Mainers lost their unemployment benefits on Dec. 28 when a previous extension expired. An estimated 9,000 more state residents would lose benefits by the end of the summer.
Lingering disagreement over unemployment insurance has also apparently stalled work on a bill that would delay implementation of new flood insurance rates that could cause premiums for some Maine property owners to rise significantly.
The new rates are the result of a 2012 law aimed at making the federal flood insurance program more financially solvent after being hit with massive payouts from storms such as Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy. But the sizable rate hikes – combined with new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps being rolled out for Maine – have resulted in an outcry.
The Senate is expected to hold a test vote this week on a bipartisan bill – the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act – that would delay the rate hikes for several years while FEMA studies the costs to property owners.
Collins signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill last week. Maine’s two House members – Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both Democrats – are co-sponsors of a companion bill in the House that has yet to see any action in that chamber.
Meanwhile, Congress is also facing two other major deadlines as it attempts to agree on a detailed spending plan for the current year and to pass a farm bill.
On the farm bill, Democrats and Republicans have been hung up on two issues with implications for some in Maine: the level of food stamp funding over the next decade and changes to the nation’s complex dairy pricing system.
Reports suggest that House and Senate negotiators have agreed to slash roughly $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. That is well below House Republicans’ $39 billion proposed cut and more than double Senate Democrats’ $4 billion proposal.
Maine consistently has among the highest proportions of residents on food stamps, with roughly 18 percent of Mainers receiving assistance in 2011.
The current version of the farm bill would replace government “safety net” subsidies for dairy farms with a “margin insurance” program that would require participating farmers to limit milk production when oversupply drives prices down.
The change has earned lukewarm, at best, support in Maine’s dairy industry. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has vowed to prevent a House vote on the whole farm bill if the proposed reforms remain in place.
And with a debt ceiling fight looming next month plus debates on immigration and raising the minimum wage, the political temperature in Washington is likely to stay warm throughout the winter months.
FAST-TRACKING TRADE DEALS
Members of Maine’s delegation are vowing to oppose legislation that would fast-track international trade agreements through Congress.
The Obama administration is finalizing negotiations on a new free-trade deal – known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP – that would eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers among the U.S. and about a dozen nations, most in the Asia-Pacific region. Additionally, the administration is in early discussions on a free trade deal with European Union nations.
On Thursday, a group of lawmakers introduced a bill that could be critical to the TPP’s fate. The bill would grant President Obama “trade promotion authority,” essentially forcing Congress to take an up-or-down vote on the trade deal without opportunities to change it.
Michaud and Pingree quickly voiced their opposition to the trade promotion authority bill.
“We know what happens when Congress passes this type of legislation granting fast track,” Michaud, who also is running for governor this year, said in a statement. “Factories close, plants move overseas, and our workers are left behind. We simply can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Pingree, who represents the 1st District, said the North American Free Trade Agreement that began 20 years ago this month hurt manufacturing in Maine and “wasn’t a good deal for American workers.”
“There are two major trade deals that are essentially being negotiated in secret, and fast track authority means they could be rammed through Congress without the kind of debate and transparency that’s needed if we want to really see what’s in these agreements,” Pingree said in a statement. “Congress should be figuring out how to create jobs here at home, not ship them overseas.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, has said he would review the legislation but has indicated in the past that he would oppose fast-track legislation.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership has ardent supporters and critics in Maine. While fishermen and southern Maine’s high-tech sector would likely expand exports to Asia-Pacific markets, companies such as sneaker-maker New Balance could be hurt by the elimination of U.S. import taxes on goods made in low-cost overseas labor markets such as Vietnam.
ANOTHER SENATE CANDIDATE?
Mike Turcotte, an adjunct professor at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, announced last week that he was exploring the possibility of running against Collins as an independent this November.
In an interview, Turcotte said he believed the country needs to reset its priorities when it comes to fiscal policy, especially spending on the military and intelligence gathering. He has also said he would focus on issues of poverty, education and strengthening support for veterans and senior citizens.
Turcotte has given himself until Jan. 20 to make a decision, based on feedback he is soliciting online through his website and Facebook page. As an independent, Turcotte would need to gather 4,000 signatures from registered Maine voters by June 2 to qualify for the ballot.
Democrat Shenna Bellows and Republican Erick Bennett have also announced plans to run against Collins, who is seeking a fourth six-year term in the Senate.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: