Maine's Role in Debt Ceiling Debate Isn't Over
It’s all over but the cutting.
The deal reached on the debt ceiling in Washington is a compromise that no one seems happy with and one that split the votes of Maine’s congressional delegation, and that’s all before many of the final details of the plan have become clear.
Initial cuts to federal programs are to be followed by a vote on a package of further cuts worked out by a small panel of members of congress. If an agreement isn’t reached on those provisions, the nation will see an automatic cut to programs including defense spending and social services. In all, the cuts may total $2.4 trillion.
Maine Senators Snowe and Collins and Congressman Michaud voted in favor of the deal and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree cast what is widely seen as a symbolic vote against the measure, which passed the House by a comfortable margin.
None of Maine’s members of Congress announced their intentions well in advance of the vote, and Snowe in particular waited until the absolute last moment to indicate which way she would go.
According to the Washington Post, she was the last to cast her ballot:
The once-empty chamber was now bustling with activity. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who had been undecided on the measure and who is running for re-election in 2012, still hadn’t cast her vote 20 minutes in. She stood at the front of the chamber, surrounded by Kyl, McConnell, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and solemnly examined a sheet of paper on the desk in front of her, every now and then exchanging words with McConnell.
Then, with her party leader standing behind her, Snowe put up one finger to indicate that she was a “yes.”
Several minutes later, Durbin gaveled the vote closed and announced the final tally. McConnell and Reid stood at their desks – McConnell beaming, Reid staid – as Durbin read the results to a mostly-silent chamber.
Almost immediately after the vote, Snowe was attacked for her position by one of her Republican primary challengers. Scott D’Amboise sent out an email claiming Snowe had lied about her intentions and reneged on an earlier pledge not to support any plan that raised the debt ceiling without also including a so-called balanced budget amendment. As Matt Gagnon points out, (in his usual outspoken style) Snowe never made such a pledge.
The entire debate over the debt ceiling was a creation of the Tea Party. At no time before in our nation’s history have we seen such clamor over what has usually been simply a procedural matter to approve the continued paying of debts for budgets that have already been passed by Congress.
Those in the newly ascendant Right saw this as an opportunity to advance their larger agenda and in the end it worked. They got the massive cuts they wanted, without even the smaller revenue raises (mostly closing tax loopholes and deleting tax incentives for the wealthy) that President Obama initially asked for in return.
I guess it’s hard to win a game of chicken against someone who doesn’t care if they crash the country.
Or, phrased more nerdily, "the power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it."
In the end, this imbalance in negotiating positions meant that the final decision came down to a debate within the Republican Party. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it in these blunt terms:
“I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” he said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”
I think that metaphor stands as a sad description of the entire debate.
While politicians across the country, especially Republicans, felt the heat from the Tea Party, Maine's members of Congress were the target of strong advocacy by progressive groups toward both refraining from “shooting the hostage” and protecting programs including Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.
MoveOn and other groups held rallies at the offices of Representatives Michaud and Pingree and the Maine Small Business Coalition delivered (as in the photo above) hundreds of personal messages from Maine business owners to Snowe and Collins on the eve of the vote, asking them to avoid a financial collapse. (Full disclosure: members of the Maine People’s Alliance, an organization I work for, participated in the events.)
In the end, the debt ceiling compromise didn’t solve the crisis, it simply delayed it by three months until recommendations come back from the congressional panel (assuming they can agree on some).
As many have pointed out, our state has more to lose in this debate than most states. With our older and more rural population, cuts to federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be felt immediately and deeply here in Maine.