There can be no doubt that Maine voters handed a devastating blow to the Republican Party last November, giving Janet Mills an easy victory in the gubernatorial election and rendering the party nearly irrelevant in the State House. Democrats can pass any bill they want without any bipartisan support as long as they stick together. They can even afford to give some of their more vulnerable members a pass on tough votes, like on the recently passed assisted-suicide bill. That means that, for the most part, Republicans are mere observers this legislative session. All they can do is water down bills in committee, or hope that public pressure leads Democratic leadership to rethink things.

One of the few exceptions is the biennial budget, which must be passed with a two-thirds margin – so Democrats need a few Republican votes in the House. Typically, the minority party works diligently behind the scenes with the majority party in the Appropriations Committee to come to a consensus. They’re trying to pass the budget out of committee on a united vote, or at least with a bare minimum of dissent. That would allow the budget to sail through the House and Senate with bipartisan support.

That’s largely the approach Republicans seem to be taking this session with the budget, pecking away at it with their colleagues across the aisle to make it slightly less fiscally irresponsible. They’ve been working diligently to at least minimize the damage done by the runaway spending proposed by the Mills administration, and to torpedo any of the grandiose liberal schemes that would require massive new tax hikes, like the carbon tax floated earlier this session. The thinking goes that if they show themselves to be good-faith partners in governing, then perhaps they can get something done this session and voters will begin to trust them again. That strategy is responsible, reasonable – and wrong.

It’s wrong because it underestimates the value in being so low in numbers, and the extent to which so many of the votes in Augusta are choreographed by the majority. The advantage of being largely irrelevant is that it’s up to the leadership in the majority to restrain their more radical members, which creates multiple opportunities for the minority party. If the more liberal proposals end up passing, that may alienate moderates in the fall and motivate conservatives, creating new openings for the Republican Party to retake the majority. If they fail, that could demotivate grassroots activists on the left, leading to more dissent among Democrats.

Take the recent debate over state funding for abortions as an example. Republicans could draw a line in the sand over this issue, tying it directly to passage of the state budget. That’s the approach many conservative activists are calling for by Republican leadership, and it’s not a surprise: Most conservatives are stridently opposed to any expansion of abortion services.

The problem is that Republicans have a slim margin for error even when it comes to the budget in the House. To pass the budget, Democrats need to pick off only a few Republican defectors, and the few Democrats who might sympathize with Republicans on abortion probably won’t cross party lines for a government shutdown over it. It will either lead to a shutdown that alienates moderates, or it will pass anyway, disappointing the base. Either way, a high-stakes confrontation over abortion could very well end up working out poorly for the Republican Party, win or lose – they’re probably better off avoiding it entirely if possible. If the party can find a way to quietly kill the proposal, they can still use it as an issue on the campaign trail without risking a big loss.

Republicans should neither give Mills a free pass on this budget nor find an excuse to engage in yet another round of brinksmanship. Republican leadership shouldn’t abandon negotiations, but there’s no reason for them to do Democrats’ job for them. They ought to try to avoid a shutdown – and the blame that comes along with it – while making sure that every Democrat has to vote for it and that it only receives the bare minimum of bipartisan support needed to pass. Then most Republicans will still be able to honestly campaign against the budget, lamenting that they tried to do more to improve it but the Democrats just wouldn’t listen. That will drive home to voters that if really want to see fiscal responsibility in Augusta, they need to send more Republicans up there.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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