December 17, 2011

Snowe, Collins approve payroll tax cut

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON – Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine voted in favor of a short-term extension of a Social Security payroll tax cut today, but split their votes on a nearly $1 trillion year-end spending bill.


The bill, which extends this year’s 2 percent payroll tax cut for two months, as well as extends unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, was approved 89-10. The House is expected to approve it next week.


But Snowe criticized the catch-all spending bill — approved just in time to avert a government shutdown — for cuts to a low-income energy assistance program and for being rushed through Congress without giving lawmakers enough time to review the details.


The spending bill passed 67-32, with only Republicans voting against it. The House approved the spending bill on Friday, 296-121.


Snowe said the $3.5 billion in the bill for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program “remains a massive cut as Mainers and Americans across the country are experiencing high prices for home heating oil during the holiday season.”


The LIHEAP money in the bill is more than the $2.57 billion President Obama requested for the program, but far less than the $4.7 billion LIHEAP received last winter.


This puts Maine in line to get about $38.5 million this winter, compared to $56.5 million last winter, according to MaineHousing, which oversees the program for the state.


Last winter, 63,802 Maine households, with an average income of $16,757, got LIHEAP benefits averaging $802 over the winter heating season, according to MaineHousing.


About 65,000 households are expected to apply for the aid this winter, but the per-household benefit would drop to an average of $483 unless more money is found.


Snowe says she and Sens. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, will keep pushing a bill to boost the program back to $4.7 billion, but given the budget realities this year that could be a tough lift.


The House initially supported $3.4 billion for the program this winter and the Senate $3.6 billion, so the final figure splits that difference.


Snowe said she and Reed and Sanders wrote Senate leaders today requesting their LIHEAP funding bill be brought to the Senate floor in January.


Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, voted against the spending bill in the House, citing cuts to the LIHEAP program and more money spent on the war in Afghanistan.


But Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said he regarded the spending bill as a bipartisan compromise that included money for research into illnesses suffered by veterans who served in the first Gulf War, and ship building at Bath Iron Works.

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