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Monday December 19, 2011 | 04:24 PM

Maine lawmakers say a standoff between the Senate and House Republicans can’t be allowed to get in the way of at least temporarily extending a Social Security payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits set to expire Dec. 31.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, says House Republicans are playing a political “Russian roulette” if they refuse to pass the Senate’s two-month extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits and try to force the Senate to return to negotiate a one-year extension now.

(Updated as of 7:15 p.m.:  Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said she too intends to support the two-month extension that passed the Senate 89-10 on Saturday.

“Letting the payroll tax cut expire and letting unemployment benefits run out will not only make it harder on struggling Maine families, it will also take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Maine economy beginning January 1st,” Pingree said.  “This is the wrong time to hold these important programs hostage to partisan Washington politics.”)

The Senate went home for its holiday break after passing the two-month extension and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he won't call senators back if the House refuses to pass it too and tries to re-open negotiations with the Senate.

Michaud said he plans to vote for the two-month extension tonight when House GOP leaders place it on the House floor, saying that’s better than allowing the tax cut and unemployment benefits to expire at the end of the year.

“I was hoping they (Senate leaders) would be able to do a one-year extension, but it appears the most Republican and Democratic leadership could come up with was a two-month extension…and that is better than not extending it at all,” Michaud said in a phone interview. “When you look at the end of the year coming up it is a gamble” if the House Republicans don’t pass the two-month extension this week.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement that she prefers a one-year extension too, noting that she introduced her own proposal to do that with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. But she said House Republicans now must act to pass the Senate’s two-month extension lest the tax cut and benefits expire.

“But that at this point, we must act, as the Senate has done, to prevent a tax increase that will otherwise occur on January 1,” Collins said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said that she would have preferred a one-year extension now, too.

Snowe stopped short of calling on the House Republicans to immediately pass the Senate bill approved Saturday 89-10, including with the votes of Snowe and Collins.

But Snowe said in a statement that one way or the other it is “paramount at this point is that this tax benefit for hardworking Americans not be allowed to lapse.”

Snowe said that she too wanted a one-year extension, but when Senate Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree one how to accomplish that before the end of the year, “I voted for the 2-month proposal on Saturday to ensure that the payroll tax cut, which 160 million Americans and up to 600,000 Mainers would have seen disappear on January 1st - and unemployment insurance, which 2.2 million Americans and 4,000 Mainers would have lost by February - did not fall by the wayside.”


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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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