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Politics

Angus King enters the spotlight as Democrats pivot to voting rights

Angus King
Andrew Harnik/AP
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AP
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks as U.S. Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton appears before a Senate Rules and Administration Committee oversight hearing on the Jan. 6, attack on the Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

In this week’s Pulse: Sen. Angus King and the push to protect voting rights; Pingree: Build Back Better needed to save childcare credit; Mills’ COVID dilemma; LePage’s conservative radio redux.

Confronted with a protracted intraparty stalemate over their domestic policy spending initiative, Democrats in the U.S. Senate signaled this week that they’re pivoting to voting rights legislation.

The rejiggering of priorities follows stalled talks over Build Back Better, a priority for Democrats and President Joe Biden that has thus far failed to galvanize the entirety of the Democrats’ slim congressional majority.

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Democrats are more united on voting rights, but there’s one big problem: Senate Democrats have not coalesced around a procedural mechanism to pass an overhaul designed to counteract efforts by Republican-led legislatures to dial back ballot access expanded during the pandemic such as voting by mail, expanded absentee voting and using secure drop boxes. In more extreme cases, GOP state lawmakers are pushing restrictions that voting rights groups assert will make it harder for people of color to vote, while also giving legislatures more power to influence presidential elections by weakening the oversight and certification duties of state election officials.

Such moves have alarmed election experts, who view the changes as anti-democratic companions to ongoing efforts by former President Donald Trump and his followers to discredit the 2020 presidential election. Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King is among those who view the situation not only as a threat to ballot access for marginalized groups, but also as a potentially lethal blow to the American experiment.

During a widely disseminated floor speech in October, King described Trump’s ability to convince two-thirds of Republican voters that the 2020 election was illegitimate, along with the Republicans’ play in the states, as potential harbingers of a slide to authoritarianism (excerpt):

“The reason this is so destructive is if you can’t trust elections, what are your options? One is to change the rules to discourage your perceived enemies from voting; check, that’s in the works. Another is to change the rules to give partisan legislatures the power to override election results they don’t like; check, also in the works.

“Another is to contrive pseudo-legal arguments to justify the corruption of the counting of electoral votes and pressure the vice president to carry out the scheme. Check. We now know that was very much in the works in the days leading up to Jan. 6. Or finally, try to change the results through violence or threats of violence; check — Jan. 6, and death threats to election officials of both parties across the country.

“Jan. 6 was not a random day on the calendar; it was the day appointed to finalize the results of the November election. Many of those who came to Washington that day were not there to protest, but were there with the explicit purpose of disrupting and stopping this crucial final step in our democratic process.

The rallying cry that day wasn’t ‘protest the steal’; it was ‘stop the steal.’”

King’s remarks left no doubt about his concern for American democracy. What’s not clear, however, is whether he can convince swing-vote Democrats to change the Senate 60-vote filibuster rule to get voting rights legislation passed.

Republicans are virtually united against any voting rights changes proposed by Democrats. That includes U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has previously described the Freedom to Vote Act as “a vast federal takeover of state elections.”

King has often expressed reluctance to remove the filibuster rule, which some view as preventing the Senate majority from steamrolling the minority party and encouraging cooperation between the two.

“Today's annoying obstruction can be tomorrow's priceless shield from bad things that you might not like,” he told Maine Public on Thursday.

However, King says voting rights is an exception.

“I'm really worried,” he said. “I really seriously worry about the country in a way that I never have before. When it comes to a Senate rule, or democracy itself, I’ve gotta go with democracy.”

King said he has been in near constant talks with swing-vote Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, both of whom are far less certain to amend the filibuster rule.

King said neither senator is “there yet” on the filibuster change that he says he can support. It would essentially reinstate the “talking filibuster,” thus requiring the minority party to debate legislation rather than simply allowing one member to announce their opposition and force a 60-vote threshold to pass a bill.

“The filibuster has evolved into something that's just too damned easy,” King said. “You can literally call it in. You don't have to hold the floor. You don't have to speak. You just say, ‘I'm going to filibuster,’ and therefore 60 votes are required. So what it's turned into is a de facto supermajority requirement in the U.S. Senate.”

King, who has been in talks with Biden, was asked whether the president supports the talking filibuster change.

“He's interested in whatever will work,” King said. “Of course, he was a senator himself. He remembers when the filibuster was really the filibuster and he understands what's happened.”

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Maine Legislature are continuing their tinkering of voting laws after passing bills to expand ballot access earlier this year.

They plan to advance a bill sponsored by Rep. Teresa Pierce, of Falmouth, that strengthens rules around the custody of counted ballots. It’s also backed by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

The proposal is a response to efforts in other states by Trump activists and Republicans to conduct so-called audits of the 2020 election. More specifically, Pierce’s proposal is designed to prevent municipal election officials from surrendering voter data or counting machines to partisan activists. The bill was inspired by a controversy in Mesa County, Colorado, where a county clerk is accused of allowing an unauthorized person to observe a routine update to voting software there, a move that led to the publishing online of passwords and other information by Ron Watkins, a central figure in the QAnon conspiracy, whose adherents have glommed onto the falsehood that there was a nefarious plot to deny Trump a second term.

Bellows said voters should be assured that there’s a strict chain of custody and inaccessible to “third parties who might have partisan or political motives, or other agendas."

Those third parties might include the pro-Trump group granted authority by the Republican State Senate in Arizona to conduct a so-called "audit" of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County.

While it eventually confirmed Biden's victory, it inspired copycat efforts in other states, including Maine.

Bellows described such efforts as “fake audits” that undermine public confidence in elections while also potentially doubling as a grift to exploit Trump voters unhappy with the 2020 result.

“One of my concerns is that it may be a money-making opportunity like it was in Arizona, where those in charge of that big lie were sending out fundraising emails and solicitations and making huge money off of a big lie," she said. "I hope that we don't see that here in Maine."

Pingree continues push for BBB

While Senate Democrats appear to be pivoting away from Build Back Better, their counterparts in the U.S. House — including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District — continue to push the bill. For her part, Pingree seized on a potential hit to the pocketbooks and wallets of hundreds of thousands of Maine parents unless the bill passes soon.

Since the summer, parents across the country have received monthly payments of $250-$300 per child as part of the COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress last March. What the Democratic-controlled Congress did was increase the Child Tax Credit and then allowed parents to receive monthly, advance payments for every child in their household.

But that expanded tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year. As a result, the payments issued to parents on Dec. 15 would be the final installment — unless, Democrats point out, Congress passes another extension as part of Build Back Better.

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, 131,000 payments totaling $329 million have been issued to parents or caregivers in Maine during the six months of the expanded tax credit. Pingree and her Democratic colleagues, as well as the White House, have touted the tax credits as helping to lift millions of families and children out of poverty.

“I refuse to let today’s #ChildTaxCredit check be the last,” Pingree tweeted on Dec. 15. She later tweeted that “All I want for Christmas is to #BuildBackBetter” with a picture of the holiday tree in Portland’s Monument Square.

Maine’s other Democratic congressman, meanwhile, continues to push for the Senate to remove what he regards as the most problematic part of the Build Back Better bill.

2nd District Rep. Jared Golden was the only Democrat in the House to vote against the bill last month. And one of the primary reasons Golden gave for that vote was the inclusion of another tax exemption, called the State and Local Tax, or SALT, provision that he says disproportionately benefits wealthy Americans.

The SALT provision allows homeowners to deduct up to $80,000 in state and local taxes from their federal taxes. Democrats from states with high property values and high property taxes, such as New York, New Jersey and California, lifted the tax deduction from $10,000 to $80,000. But Golden wants that provision either removed or scaled back dramatically.

This past week, Golden pointed to an analysis from the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that pointed out Golden’s proposal to limit the tax relief for households making less than $175,000 would cost $25 billion over five years. The version of the SALT provision in the House bill would cost $275 billion.

“These costs would be much more manageable and would represent a much smaller part of the Build Back Better Act relative to other SALT cap relief proposals,” the organization stated.

Of course, all of these issues are now part of the Senate negotiations, focused largely on Manchin.

COVID crunch

With the delta variant still raging and the inevitable arrival of omicron, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills might be facing her toughest pandemic challenge yet.

Fights with Republicans over her approach to managing the coronavirus have been constant, but recently, she has come under fire from liberals.

Last week, during a press conference in which she again urged unvaccinated Mainers to get their shots to decrease pressure on overwhelmed hospitals, she was asked whether her administration had considered a program that would deliver rapid COVID tests directly to Maine residents. Several states are testing similar initiatives, including New Hampshire, where residents requested 100,000 tests in the span of about 24 hours.

During the press conference, Mills initially questioned the feasibility of such a program, saying, “Home delivery? It’s not like delivering pizza.”

The response on social media among liberal activists was swift. And angry.

Mills’ spokesperson would later clarify that the governor is open to the home testing idea if the Biden administration expands the pilot program that N.H. used.

Nevertheless, the response among some social media users mirrored the one that greeted White House press secretary Jen Psaki a few days earlier when she had a similarly glib response to a home testing question from NPR reporter Mara Liasson.

The reaction appears to illustrate growing unease — and in some cases outright outrage — among people who have followed public health precautions, gotten vaccinated and yet watch helplessly as the pandemic rages seemingly unabated.

Some are looking for Mills to do something about it, including reinstituting indoor mask requirements, gathering restrictions or even requiring vaccinations to conduct certain activities.

Mills has thus far shown little appetite to return to pre-vaccine precautions. Doing so would require her to call another state of emergency, which is what gave her the power to unilaterally implement masking requirements and business restrictions during the first year of the pandemic.

The widespread availability of the vaccines, and the majority of Mainers’ interest in receiving them, prompted Mills to end the previous state of emergency and transition the state to largely relying on personal responsibility.

However, the winter surge of the delta variant, along with low vaccination rates in rural counties — Aroostook, Franklin and Piscataquis have some of the highest per capita case rates in the U.S — is testing the limits of that strategy.

Omicron, which public health experts worry can evade immune defenses even among the vaccinated, will test it further still.

LePage resurfaces – sort of

After months of relative quiet, former Gov. Paul LePage has popped up several times recently as he gears up to challenge Mills next year.

Two of those “appearances” were on radio talk shows, which raises the question of whether his campaign is reviving the governor’s habit of bypassing traditional news media outlets to get his message out.

During the latter part of his eight years as governor, LePage spoke regularly to a select group of friendly radio talk show hosts (in Maine and nationally) while refusing to grant interviews to many of the reporters who covered the State House daily.

It’s a gross understatement to say LePage had a rocky relationship with the Maine press, particularly newspapers. Journalists’ access to the governor was usually restricted to infrequent press conferences or brief hallway encounters.

But he liked talking to, say, WGAN Morning News or WVOM where he was rarely challenged.

And that was certainly the case on Wednesday when he spoke with Mike Violette, Legacy 1160 WSKW’s proudly impolitic morning show host, who referred to LePage as “Maine's once and hopefully future Governor.”

As expected, LePage criticized Mills’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he views as heavy-handed. He was particularly critical of Mills’ vaccination mandate for health care workers, suggesting it (and not the surge in COVID cases) was largely to blame for hospitals being overwhelmed and short-staffed.

There’s a legitimate debate raging nationally over vaccine mandates, and Mills’ requirement that health care workers get a shot to keep their jobs will certainly be campaign fodder over the coming 11 months.

But at one point, LePage inaccurately accused Mills of suing his administration over its handling of a nurse who had just returned to the U.S. after treating ebola patients in Africa. The LePage administration tried to force the nurse, Kaci Hickox, to quarantine in her house in Fort Kent, and the dispute generated national headlines for days.

“Janet Mills was the attorney general at the time,” LePage told Violette. “She sued me. She won and the courts in Maine have said that you cannot quarantine someone who is not showing the signs of an illness. That’s the decision and she is doing it anyway.”

That’s false. In fact, AG Mills’ office represented his administration in court when Maine DHHS attempted to force Hickox to quarantine.

To be fair, Mills made it clear back after the court ruling that she fundamentally disagreed with the LePage administration’s handling of the Hickox matter. Mills said at the time “Nobody can catch this from her by being near her” and said policies should be based on medical science. And she did refuse to represent the LePage administration on other issues, arguing the administration’s position was not in the best interests of Maine residents.

But it’s also unclear who LePage is suggesting that Mills is forcing to quarantine today. Maine, like most states, has lifted nearly all restrictions imposed earlier in the pandemic. And as mentioned above, Mills is under fire from some liberals who say her administration is not doing enough amid the current surge.