Maine’s U.S. senators struck a dramatically different tone in their responses to President Trump’s executive actions this weekend to unilaterally free up funds for coronavirus relief.

Some critics accused the president of usurping Congress’ constitutional power of the purse in his actions Saturday, which included a memorandum that would extend enhanced unemployment benefits that expired in July, albeit at a lower rate – $400 weekly rather than $600 – and with states picking a quarter of those costs. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called the move “unconstitutional slop.”

Angus King, Maine’s junior senator, said the president’s actions moved the country closer to an “elected monarchy.” Republican Sen. Susan Collins, meanwhile, criticized congressional Democrats for blocking the extension of unemployment benefits and called on them to negotiate in earnest.

“I hope the President’s actions will prompt Democratic leaders to negotiate seriously to reach a much-needed agreement to help struggling families, seniors, schools, businesses, municipalities & the USPS with this persistent pandemic,” Collins said in a statement Sunday, referring in part to the U.S. Postal Service. “Three times, Senate Democratic leaders blocked extending extra unemployment benefits to prevent their expiration during the negotiations.”

Collins acknowledged the constitutional concerns, calling for Congress to pass legislation soon.

“Congress must act quickly,” she said. “There are constitutional limits on what the President can do to help through executive orders.”

Collins did not say that Trump had violated those limits. Her spokespeople said she was not available to answer questions about the constitutionality of the president’s actions.

Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, who will challenge Collins for her Senate seat in November, issued a statement criticizing both Trump and Collins Monday morning.

“These actions are yet another sign of Washington’s failures,” Gideon said. “For months, Susan Collins and Senate Republicans have refused to do what’s right for the American people during a pandemic. Donald Trump’s political theater does nothing to provide relief to states and municipalities, help schools, or expand testing – instead, it puts Medicare and Social Security at risk.”

The spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills did not respond to requests for an interview regarding the president’s proposal to extend unemployment benefits with states picking up 25 percent of the cost.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, was sharp in his criticism of Trump’s action.

“If the President’s unconstitutional executive orders are allowed to proceed, they would accelerate the erosion of Congress’s fundamental powers and lead us further down the path to the undermining of the American experiment in self-governance,” King said in a statement Sunday. “This maneuver effectively ignores our system of checks and balances – and Congress retaining the power of the purse – and instead is moving us toward an elected monarchy. I wonder if those who cheer this action now will feel the same when a Democratic president wields these kinds of powers based upon this precedent.”

King went on to criticize the substance of the plan Trump put forward on Saturday. It would extend $400 in weekly benefits to those unemployed during the pandemic, but asks states to pay 25 percent – money some states say they don’t have. The plan also would re-route money from disaster relief funds – an idea King called a “shell game” that could leave the country unprepared in the next crisis.

The president stepped in on Saturday after prolonged negotiations stalled in Congress. Democrats in the Senate are declining to support a Republican-backed relief bill, saying it contains too many giveaways to corporations and the ultra-rich. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., so far has not taken up a House-passed bill from May that would advance the Democratic-controlled chamber’s aid plan.

The president’s actions also drew critical responses Sunday evening from Maine’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, called the actions a public relations stunt and Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, accused the president of taking actions that could in the long term harm Social Security and Medicare.

Pingree said Americans are facing the most grave public health threat and economic crisis of their lifetimes. She said Mainers need their government to act swiftly to support families, workers, teachers and health care providers. She accused McConnell of prioritizing Trump’s wishes over Americans’ needs.

“President Trump’s announcement is a PR stunt, not real relief,” Pingree said in a statement. “It does not assist our schools and teachers struggling to reopen, nothing to feed the hungry, nothing to extend the eviction moratorium, nothing to stop cuts in essential municipal services, and nothing to shore up the Post Office to ensure the integrity of the election.”

Pingree said the president’s “scheme” to aid the unemployed will take weeks to implement and “robs from disaster relief.” She said Congress must extend the current $600 weekly bonus for immediate relief. She urged Senate leaders to come back and negotiate with the House on the basis of the comprehensive Heroes Act.

Golden called the president’s executive orders a serious overreach of the executive’s authority.

“Even worse, he comes up short on addressing our nation’s public health crisis and recession,” Golden said in a statement. “Instead, some of these actions could actually hurt Americans in the long run, like his proposed permanent payroll tax cut, which would lead to cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”

Golden went a step further, blaming McConnell and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, for the predicament the country finds itself in.

“The theatrics and political games we’ve seen from McConnell and Pelosi represent a failure of leadership and show the American people that the political establishment’s leaders in Washington don’t understand the depth of the crisis millions of families face right now. Pelosi and McConnell need to stop playing games and lead their respective caucuses to a thoughtful compromise with the White House.”

Such a compromise would provide enhanced employment benefits to laid-off workers, extend federal support to state and local governments and provide help to small businesses while they weather a prolonged economic crisis, according to Golden.

“The nation should not be hanging in the balance waiting for party leaders to get out of their partisan corners,” he said.

Trump’s suite of executive actions on Saturday included an executive order that directs federal agencies to “consider” continuing a suspension of housing evictions during the pandemic. Other presidential memoranda, which carry less weight than an executive order, call for the continuation of jobless benefits and the suspension of the payroll tax through the rest of the year for Americans making less than $100,000 annually. The tax would still be due at a later date.

Though some Republicans, such as Sasse, decried what they perceived as the unconstitutionality of the president’s actions, the response in Congress largely fell along party lines.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump’s plan “meager” on Saturday, adding that it shows he “still does not comprehend the seriousness or the urgency of the health and economic crises facing working families.”

McConnell blasted Democrats for having “sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people.”

“I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most,” he said in a statement Saturday.

 

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