Heroes or zeros? Senators’ health care votes up for debate



Heroes, or villains? Maine’s two U.S. senators were both celebrated and castigated for their recent votes on the health care bill. Looking at what the bill would have meant for Maine, it is hard not to think they did the right thing.

Independent Sen. Angus King joined Senate Democrats in opposing the “repeal and replace” effort. He created a bit of theater on the floor of the Senate in June, pretending to search for the bill as he stood at the podium. There was no bill, and on the day of the Republicans’ final attempt, there still wasn’t.

“I’ve never seen a process like this. No hearings, no discussion,” said King in a news interview. Back home in Maine, he called the bill “not good news” for hospitals, threatening their very survival, leading to job loss and jeopardizing patient care.

Changes to Medicaid in the bill also could be devastating. With 70 percent of people in Maine nursing homes on Medicaid, and 50 percent of those living with dementia, federal funding is all that protects Maine families from a shattering burden of care in the home setting.

The Congressional Budget Office said that this plan, like all the others put forward, would result in the loss of health insurance for millions. Sen. King echoed the assessment of those who called the whole initiative a way to save enough money “to give tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans.”

Sen. Susan Collins was in a far more challenging position, and oh, did she step up. A nonstop battering from Republican colleagues, leadership, and Vice President Pence himself did not deter her from doing what she thought was in her constituents’ best interest. She voted no. Joined by just two other Republicans, it was enough to sink the bill.

It was a profile in courage that King was quick to praise. At a hasty airport press event when he landed in Portland after the Senate finally closed up shop, King said he didn’t think he had “ever seen a public official manifest greater courage and commitment to their constituents than Susan Collins has over the last week.”

Indeed, upon Collins’ own return to Maine, she was greeted at the Bangor airport with a spontaneous ovation by travelers in the terminal. Across Maine, those who supported her vote poured on the thanks. “Proud of our senators, Collins and King” read a street-side sign in one town.

The sentiment was not universal. Though there is personal satisfaction in serving as an elected official, one does take a pounding, and these days that pounding is getting louder, meaner and more personal than ever before. Waiting to pounce was Maine’s critic in chief, Governor Paul LePage.

Though the Governor once expressed opposition to the bill, he seems to have changed his tune. Unable to simply state his terms of disagreement, the Governor felt compelled to take the low road. He called their votes “disgusting.” He labeled King a “spender.” And the most ludicrous accusation of all? Collins “did not do her homework.”

Ha! “Homework” is Collins’ middle name. She is massively, thoroughly, wildly, unimpeachably and flawlessly prepared for every move she makes. Homework? Woe be unto a staffer who fails to make sure she has every shred of information she needs to support a position, who allows any inaccuracy to slip into a briefing, who fails to cover every last pro and con she needs to help her make a policy choice.

Collins does homework all the livelong day, until the cows come home and get their cookies and milk and are tucked into bed. And then some. She lives for homework. She thrives on homework. Hence, the Governor’s comment that “when she’s well briefed on an issue, most of the time she will take a reasonable vote” was like saying that when Tom Brady gets good coaching, he can be a pretty good quarterback most of the time.

How does Paul LePage stand up in the homework department? Given his positon in support of the failed health care bill, not very well. Detail is not his strong point, and his arguments for and against various health care proposals have been undermined by inaccuracies and a general lack of understanding of the specifics of the proposals and their potential impact on Maine.

The Governor did not stop at criticizing King and Collins. Nope. Next he went after George Mitchell, who had praised Collins and King for their votes and urged them to engage in a “bipartisan effort to fix what’s wrong with our health care system.” LePage didn’t hold back, calling all three “sadly out of touch” and “three peas in a pod” as “members of the world’s most exclusive club,” a club that the Governor has expressed interest in joining.

George Mitchell a pea in a pod? He is a statesman without equal in contemporary politics. It would take a lesser light, and a dim one at that, to apply the insulting rhetoric in which Paul LePage indulged last week. Out of touch? Not hardly. It is Paul LePage who is out of his league.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.