Saturday, March 8, 2014
WASHINGTON - With the nation peering over the fiscal cliff and Congress likely to cast votes Sunday or Monday on possible alternatives, it is worth taking another look at where members of Maine's delegation stand -- or stood recently -- on the major issues.
Both outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe and soon-to-be senior senator Susan Collins have expressed a willingness to buck the Republican Party leadership by voting to raise taxes on families earning $250,000 or more and individuals who make $200,000 or more. But both have also, in the past, voted against the Democratic plan to do just that. And given the opportunity, most Republicans would vote to set the income bar higher.
Snowe, whose final vote of her 34-year congressional career may be on the fiscal cliff, suggested on CNN's "Starting Point" on Friday that the $400,000 compromise recently offered by President Obama could be a good starting point.
"I think it has to begin in the Senate," Snowe said. "And if we can get it passed in the Senate and send it to the House, hopefully the Speaker will be able to garner the support from within his caucus and, with Democrats, get this job done before the end of this year."
Likewise, Collins told WCSH-6 in Portland that her best guess was that the line for tax increases would be set in the $400,000 to $500,000 range. Collins has also been pushing for an exemption or "carve out" for small business owners who file their business income on their personal income taxes.
On the House side, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud voted for the Democratic plan to extend tax cuts for those earning $250,000 or less. Both Democrats also planned to vote against House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" of tax increases only for millionaires but the bill was pulled prior to a vote.
The question for Michaud, Pingree and other House Democrats is how high they would be willing to set that tax-hike bar in order to avoid going over the cliff and raising taxes on more than 500,000 households in Maine. Last week, Pingree reiterated her call for a House vote on the $250,000 Democratic plan while Michaud -- the more conservative of the two -- didn't endorse any specific proposal but simply called on congressional leaders to reach a compromise.
Another item to watch is whether any fiscal cliff compromise extends unemployment benefits for those who have been unable to find work for more than six months. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Mainers would lose their unemployment benefits without another extension.
Finally, there's the payroll tax, a part of the fiscal cliff that has been overshadowed by the debate over income tax rates.
Congress enacted the "payroll tax holiday" two years ago, temporarily rolling back by 2 percent the federal deduction that helps pay for Social Security. Now, some observers are suggesting that Congress and the White House may quietly allow the holiday to end Monday as part of the compromise.
If so, most working Americans will see their paychecks shrink by 2 percent, whether they make $15,000 or $100,000 and regardless of what Congress decides on income tax rates.
Guns and gun violence will be major topics in the session of Congress that begins Thursday.
Collins, a Republican, joined several of her colleagues last week in calling for the creation of a National Commission on Violence to study the issue. The request was made in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden that was signed by Collins, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
"We believe that the root causes of this violence are complex and that responding to and preventing it will require a comprehensive approach that leaves no stone unturned," the senators wrote. "For example, if we are to act in a comprehensive manner that strengthens the mental health care system, improves law enforcement, results in healthier and happier families, keeps guns out of the hands of those who would do ill with them, and addresses an entertainment culture that too often glorifies violence, it will be essential to build a consensus grounded in facts. The recommendations of a National Commission on Violence could provide the basis for such a consensus."
Collins has not backed any specific, new gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings that killed 20 children and six school employees.
MAINE WOMEN IN HISTORY
Lastly, here's a political factoid that surprised even retiring Sen. Snowe, a history buff.
With a combined 34 years in the U.S. House and Senate, Snowe has amassed more time in Congress than all but two women in history. But there's another Maine native who ranks above her on that list, and it isn't the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.
Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican, represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1925 to 1969. But Nourse was born in Saco in 1881. Her 35-year tenure in the House puts her second on the list of women in Congress behind Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.
Snowe said that, although she was aware of Rogers' place in history, she didn't know until last year that she was born in Maine.
"I'm the third longest-serving woman and Margaret Chase Smith is the fourth longest-serving woman," Snowe said during a recent interview. "So of the top four longest-serving women in the history of this country, three were born in Maine. That is amazing, when you think about it."
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 207-317-6256 or at: