October 20, 2013

Washington Notebook: Bipartisan Senate group plans to stick together

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They may not have written the agreement that ended the most recent congressional deadlock, but the bipartisan group of senators who helped frame the final deal hope to stick together to potentially help avoid the next one.

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Sen. Angus King, one of the “group of 14” who urged negotiation, is named to a key conference committee.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Sen. Susan Collins was joined by 13 who nudged fellow lawmakers to find a compromise to end the shutdown.

2012 file photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

“This isn’t the last crisis that we’re going to go through,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the group of 14 lawmakers that also included both of Maine’s senators. “But I think we have the framework for the kind of bipartisanship that the American people need and want.”

All four of Maine and New Hampshire’s senators were among the “group of 14” (they have yet to give themselves a formal name) who tried to find a bipartisan deal to reopen federal agencies and avoid a federal default. Those four also represented three political ideologies: Republican (Maine’s Susan Collins and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte), Democratic (New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen) and independent (Maine’s Angus King).

Collins started the whole thing when she floated a three-part plan after growing tired of watching the partisan posturing still in full swing days after 800,000 federal workers were furloughed. Ayotte and fellow Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska quickly joined, followed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

At the time, Republican and Democratic leaders were still ping-ponging proposals with little chance of passage across the Capitol and only getting together when summoned to the White House like it was the principal’s office. According to senators from both parties, the group of 14 nudged things along even if the final agreement negotiated between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., looked different from their proposal.

“They got together when things looked grim,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor before Wednesday night’s vote. “They said the Senate is going to lead. I am so grateful to them because even as things faltered, they were still at it, still working.”

Even before the Reid-McConnell agreement had been signed into law, members were asking what’s next for the group. King and Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., huddled immediately after the Senate vote and, according to King, “we all agreed that we are going to try to stay together.”

“It was good chemistry,” King said. “There was vigorous debate, but it was ultimately a very positive experience.”

Speaking at a Bangor event on Thursday, Collins said that “the 14 of us have decided we will stay together as a group to keep the pressure on,” according to the Bangor Daily News.

Ultimately, the official credit for the deal ending the shutdown showdown went to Reid and McConnell. But in an example of the power dynamics often at play in such high-stakes negotiations, legislative leaders both discouraged and encouraged the group along the way.

“It was very tricky because neither side wanted to get out ahead of their leadership but, on the other hand, we wanted to be sure there was a Plan B. We were the ‘Plan B Caucus,’ I guess,” King said. “At one point, some of the leadership called and said, ‘Stop it, what are you doing? You’re going to mess us up.’ And at another point we got a call that said, ‘Keep talking, you’re the only game in town.’”

NEXT UP: BUDGET NEGOTIATIONS

King will also play a role in the next big fiscal challenge facing the House and Senate.

Maine’s junior senator was one of 29 House and Senate members named to a “conference committee” – or negotiating group – charged with mashing together the starkly different House and Senate budget proposals for the current fiscal year and coming up with a compromise.

(Continued on page 2)

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