Thursday, April 24, 2014
WASHINGTON — Former Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe was all over the media landscape last week promoting her new book, "Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress."
Snowe's suggestions on congressional reforms (among them open primaries and an empowered grassroots movement in favor of bipartisanship) were well discussed. But here are a few interesting — if not necessarily newsworthy — anecdotes from the book:
• During the impeachment trial for President Bill Clinton, senators were required to sign an impartiality pledge. The pens, which senators were allowed to keep, featured perhaps a fitting typo: "Untied States Senate."
• Snowe's phone line lit up after her February 2012 retirement announcement. The notable callers included President Obama, former President (and longtime friend) George H.W. Bush, Vice President Joe Biden, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, and eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
• In an earlier phone call, Obama had told the Republican that she could be "a modern-day Joan of Arc" by supporting his health care bill, now known as "Obamacare." When Snowe pointed out Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake, Obama reportedly replied: "Don't worry, I'll be there with a fire hose!" She still voted against the bill on the Senate floor.
Maine dumping site
Despite being in full-blown scandal-response mode, Congress actually managed to make some progress on several important issues last week.
House and Senate committees passed long-overdue farm bills, bipartisan groups in both chambers seem to be inching toward agreement — albeit separately — on immigration reform and the Senate passed a bill that invests in dams, ports and water projects.
The latter bill — called the Water Resources Development Act — contained an amendment sponsored by Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King. It would reopen the Cape Arundel Disposal Site, a federally designated dumping site for dredged materials that is located several miles off the coast of Kennebunkport. The measure also needs House approval.
The Cape Arundel site was used for decades as the dumping spot for "clean" materials dredged from rivers and harbors in New Hampshire and Maine until 2010, according to a 2012 report from the Pease Development Authority. Dredging is often required to keep rivers and harbors navigable for ships.
The senators' offices did not specify why the Cape Arundel Disposal Site should be reopened other than to say it would avoid spending money to find another site. The New Hampshire report estimated that an environmental impact study for a new site would cost $100,000.
Pingree bill delayed
A House vote that had been scheduled for Monday on a military sexual assault bill named for a Maine veteran has apparently been pushed back.
The Ruth Moore Act of 2013 would relax the evidentiary standards necessary for veterans who were sexually assaulted to qualify for disability benefits. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has introduced the bill twice and this year named it after Milbridge resident and sexual assault survivor Ruth Moore, who struggled for years to receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The bill is expected to pass the House, handing veterans' groups a major legislative victory as they push the military to more aggressively address the problem of sexual assaults within the ranks.
It was unclear why the vote was postponed late Friday, although the schedule of floor activities changes all the time in Congress for many reasons and often with little advance notice. But with the recent intense focus in Washington on the issue of sexual assault in the military, House leaders are undoubtedly especially sensitive to the topic.
Meanwhile, Pingree and the Senate sponsor of the bill, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, are pushing President Obama to institute the changes at the VA without waiting for legislation. The White House confirmed Friday that it had received the Pingree-Tester letter but offered no other comment.
Michaud pushes retailers
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-District 2, joined nine other senior House Democrats this week in calling on major clothing retailers in the U.S. to sign onto a building safety accord after more than 1,000 garment workers died in a factor collapse in Bangladesh.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety says that participating retailers will agree to conduct independent safety inspections at factories and help pay for necessary upgrades. Dozens of clothing retailers have signed the accord.
Michaud, who is outspoken on labor and free trade issues, joined House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and several ranking members in signing the letter. The letter was sent to nine retailers, including The Gap, Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl's.
"Circumstances are at a tipping point in Bangladesh, much as they were in the wake of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York over a century ago," the letter reads. "We urge you to seize this moment, and to help ensure that workers in Bangladesh do not needlessly lose their lives to produce the clothes we wear."
C-SPAN coming to Augusta
Students at Cony High School in Augusta and visitors to the State House will get a chance to tour the C-SPAN bus this week when it swings through Maine's capital city.
The bus is stopping by Cony to recognize a local winner of the public affairs network's "StudentCam" documentary contest. Student Peter Ackerman was a third-prize winner.
The bus, which features exhibits on StudentCam and on the First Ladies of the U.S., will be at Cony High from 8:45 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday followed by a stop at the State House from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller — 317-6256