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Wednesday December 07, 2011 | 01:50 PM

Sen. Olympia Snowe says Congress is cutting a lifeline for thousands of poor Mainers if it doesn’t approve spending at least $4.7 billion this winter on a low-income home heating assistance program.

The Maine Republican has been pushing for more money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and joined with Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., today in unveiling legislation mandating that level of funding – the same as last winter - for a program that aids thousands of Mainers and others in the frosty New England region.

(Updated at 6 p.m.: Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, says she will introduce a companion bill in the House seeking $4.7 billion for LIHEAP this year. )

The lawmakers are upset that the Obama administration only asked for $2.57 billion for LIHEAP for 2012, and handed out an initial allocation of just $1.7 billion in late October.

“We are fighting tooth and nail to protect LIHEAP,” Snowe said on a conference call with reporters where the lawmakers announced their bill.

Reed said the cutbacks “vulnerable people at risk” at a time when heating oil prices continue to rise.

Last winter, about 63,500 Maine households, with an average income of $16,300, got LIHEAP benefits averaging $804 over the winter heating season, according to MaineHousing, which oversees the program for the state. Maine got about $56 million last year, but would get less than $24 million under the $1.7 billion initially released by the Obama administration.

And that per household aid figure could drop to about $300 for the winter if more money isn't approved, Snowe said.

That's a "travesty," Snowe said.

But neither the Senate nor the House has yet backed anywhere close to what Snowe and the other senators want for this winter. The Senate approved $3.6 billion, while the House has granted $3.4 billion.

Given the concern over the federal deficit and funding battles over whether and how to extend the Social Security payroll tax cut extension and unemployment benefit, it could be tough to win substantial more dollars for LIHEAP.

Snowe supports a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and last weekend urged the Senate to approve a balanced budget amendment to force lawmakers to restrain spending. She was asked on the conference call if a balanced budget amendment would make it tougher to fund programs like LIHEAP. Critics of the amendment idea say it would make it very difficult to raise new revenues and force cuts in many programs, including Social Security.

Snowe said a balanced budget amendment would force lawmakers to set priorities and choose the programs they think are most important to fund, just as families and businesses make similar decisions.

“It is all about choices,” Snowe said. “It forces you to look at the value” of each program.


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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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