Senators applaud Collins effort to save filibuster but McCain calls it ‘meaningless’

Good morning from Augusta. Another similar week of heavy committee activity awaits, with the major difference being that finally, outside looks to be a more pleasant place than a committee room. Here’s your soundtrack.

In Washington, D.C., the ripples are still spreading from last week’s momentous confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Incredibly, perhaps one of the only things that could upstage that also happened: Senate Republicans voted to change the institution’s rules and end the filibuster.

That action is called the “nuclear option” for a reason. The filibuster is meant as a moderating tool in our democracy for the minority party to delay or block what they see as extreme legislation.

After the rules were changed, the threshold for Gorsuch’s confirmation dropped from 60 votes to 51. The vote on Gorsuch was 54-45. Republicans aren’t the first party to trigger the nuclear option. Democrats did it to confirm several of Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominations to lower courts years ago.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has vowed to not touch the legislative filibuster, but U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was leading an effort alongside Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, to preserve it for legislation last week.

The two drafted a letter to Senate leadership that gathered support from 61 senators — above the 60-vote threshold for a filibuster. It was signed by 28 Republicans, 32 Democrats and an independent — fellow U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine.

“After the contentious and polarized debate of the past few weeks, I am hopeful that this letter indicates a new determination by a bipartisan group of more than 60 senators to move forward to solve the pressing problems facing our nation,” said Collins in a written statement. (Correction: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that this quote was from the letter; it was from a news release.)

King lauded Collins on Friday spearheading the effort even though she voted for the rules eliminating the filibuster on Gorsuch in the first place.

“Sen. Collins has always been a leader in working to preserve the integrity of the institution of the Senate, regardless of which party is in the majority,” he said in a written statement. “This letter is yet another testament to that fact.”

But the letter may amount to little more than words on paper, depending on whether enough senators believe in the filibuster — at least for legislation — which would hinder majority Senate Republicans’ ability to ram through any piece of legislation they want with a simple majority vote.

Some senators have indicated they want to preserve the filibuster but signing a letter is much different from the Republicans handing away a greased path to lawmaking. Influential Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, signed Collins’ letter, but told Politico it was “a nice gesture, but meaningless.”

Keep your eyes peeled on Capitol Hill. After championing Jeff Sessions for attorney general and voting to go “nuclear” on the Gorsuch filibuster, Collins needs to gain bipartisan traction for this effort — even if others deem it “meaningless” — to help maintain the moderate image she has for years fought so vehemently to cultivate. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Bernie Sanders/DNC rally junket to begin in Portland. The Washington Post first reported on Thursday that independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez would kick off a tour of states where Democrats receded in the 2016 election on April 17 in Maine, where President Donald Trump won the rural 2nd Congressional District in a historic split of the state’s electors after Sanders won the state’s caucuses over eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Maine Democratic Party spokeswoman Cara Scozzafava said Monday morning that the rally will be in Portland at the State Theatre, but no time has been released. — Michael Shepherd
  • Bill to create harsh penalties for drug dealers advances. LD 42, which would enable prosecutors to pursue a Class A manslaughter charge against anyone who provides drugs that cause a death, is on its way to floor debate in the Maine Senate. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, who is a former law enforcement officer, was voted out of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday with a divided report. It will head to the full Legislature for further consideration in the coming weeks. — Christopher Cousins
  • Collins to participate in a health care panel discussion. Collins will join officials from AARP Maine, Central Maine Healthcare, the Maine Medical Association, the American Heart Association and ACS CAN in the panel, which begins at 12:30 p.m. today at Central Maine Medical Center,12 HIgh St., Lewiston. — Christopher Cousins
  • U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree to talk broadband during Rockland roundtable. Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, will hold the roundtable with the Island Institute, the Maine Broadband Coalition and other stakeholders on how Maine’s feeble broadband internet access affects Maine’s economy. The event begins at 10:30 a.m. today at the Island Institute, 386 Main St., Rockland. Pingree is a co-sponsor of the New Deal Rural Broadband Act and has asked Trump to include broadband in his infrastructure funding plan. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

As you saw above, it’s a busy day for committees in Augusta as they move toward action on some of the year’s hot issues. The full Legislature will be back on Tuesday.

  • Today’s committee highlight may be mining, with the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee holding work sessions today and Wednesday on six bills on that subject.
  • Education will hold public hearings on a host of bills, including a concept draft from Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, aimed at ending Gov. Paul LePage’s past practice of shuffling interim officials in and out of the acting education commissioner spot to avoid confirmation hearings. Another bill from Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, would mandate that colleges provide courses to all students covering consent to sexual activity and make a note on a student’s transcript if they were convicted of an on-campus sexual assault.
  • Health and Human Services will hear testimony on welfare bills, including three from its co-chairman, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, that would place further limits on the General Assistance program.
  • Two proposals rejected in the past are up for public hearings in Veterans and Legal Affairs — one from Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, to allow the recall of federal, state and local elected officials, and another from Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, to allow tribal gaming.

Here’s the full committee schedule. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Collins gets a GRAMMY, though we need confirmation of her piano skills

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has been honored by The Recording Academy with a GRAMMY on the Hill Award, according to Maine Public. Yes, that’s the same organization that recognizes musicians in a much more publicized annual awards show.

Collins won the award for her support of funding for arts programs during her time in the U.S. Senate. However, it’s possible that Maine’s senior senator has some chops. She told the organization that she started piano lessons at age 4, but as a skilled politician didn’t mention how long she kept up with them.

There are different kinds of piano players. Is Collins more Jerry Lee Lewis or Beethoven? We’re guessing she’s more “Chopsticks” (wow, that’s the best Chopsticks performance we’ve ever seen), though if we’re wrong we’ll need to see her at the keys before we issue a correction. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.