Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump says he'll sign USPS funding if Democrats make concessions Chamber to launch ads defending embattled GOP senators Susan Collins asks postmaster general to address delays of 'critically needed mail' MORE (R-Maine), who faces the toughest reelection campaign of her Senate career, is battling her own party over coronavirus relief funding for local and state governments hit hard by the pandemic.

The Maine senator, in a state where President TrumpDonald John TrumpUPS, FedEx shut down calls to handle mail-in ballots, warn of 'significant' problems: report Controversial GOP Georgia candidate attempts to distance from QAnon Trump orders TikTok parent company to sell US assets within 90 days MORE is expected to lose the presidential vote, has co-sponsored a bill that would set up a $500 billion state and municipal recovery fund.

Collins scored a win during the negotiation of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act by co-authoring one of the bill’s most popular components, the small-business lending initiative known as the Paycheck Protection Program, to which Congress added another $320 billion last month.

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But delivering another round of aid for beleaguered state and local governments, something which Maine desperately needs, is a tough challenge because of opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcGrath reshuffles campaign in home stretch to Senate election GOP senator draws fire from all sides on Biden, Obama-era probes Chris Wallace rips both parties for coronavirus package impasse: 'Pox on both their houses' MORE (Ky.) and many other Senate Republicans.

“The pressure in Maine for those resources is huge,” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine.

He noted that a “huge amount” of Maine’s economy is based on consumer spending, tourism and fishing, which have all suffered because of the pandemic. Summer visitors are staying away and there has been a drop-off in demand from restaurants and overseas markets that buy seafood.

“If Sen. Collins is going to keep her seat, failure to deliver state and local aid would be a huge problem for her,” he said.

By the same token, if Collins can deliver, it could be a boon in her race against state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D).

“If she can deliver this in a meaningful way, that’s a huge feather in her cap and I think she knows that,” said Brewer. “It enhances her ability to say, ‘I’m still bipartisan. I stood up to the majority leader and I made him come around and was able to work with Democrats.’ "

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Recent polls show Collins and Gideon in a neck and neck race. Gideon has outraised her in the first quarter of 2020 while Collins last month reported an advantage in cash on hand. 

Collins on Wednesday delivered an impassioned plea for fiscal relief for her home state, which voted for Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcGrath reshuffles campaign in home stretch to Senate election Appeals court blocks Hillary Clinton deposition on private email server What Biden must do to keep his lead and win MORE in the 2016 presidential election.

“Working families and communities across the state of Maine have been hit hard. Moody’s forecasts that Maine may face one of the worst impacts in the entire country in terms of lost revenues,” she said.

Collins noted the bill she has co-sponsored with Sens. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump State aid emerges as major hurdle to reviving COVID-19 talks From a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters MORE (R-La.), Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage Bottom line MORE (D-N.J.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic MORE (D-W.Va.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerNew Jersey governor to announce state will move to mostly mail-in voting for November The Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' MORE (D-N.J.) to provide $500 billion in new assistance to state and local communities would not discriminate against smaller Maine towns, unlike the CARES Act, which does not allow direct federal assistance to go to municipalities of fewer than 500,000 people.

The issue of providing aid to states is a divisive one within the GOP conference, however, and McConnell blocked adding more money for state and local governments in the $484 billion interim coronavirus relief bill that Congress passed in April.

The GOP leader later suggested that Congress should revisit laws that prevent states from declaring bankruptcy, an idea that drew a swift and angry backlash from Democrats.

Collins said Thursday that she has made her views clear to the leader.

“He’s aware of my position,” she said. “You’re missing a big part if you’re describing it as just state aid. It’s state and local aid."

McConnell often expresses his admiration for Collins and they have a close relationship.

She helped deliver two of McConnell’s biggest accomplishments as leader by voting to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughThe Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump threatens Postal Service funding l Biden proposes national mask mandate l Democratic convention takes shape States should pay attention to Supreme Court justices' comments on 'reopening' orders MORE in 2018 and pass the landmark Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 — two landmark achievements of President Trump’s administration.

After Collins announced her support for Kavanaugh, assuring his confirmation, McConnell praised his colleague’s rigorous deliberation ahead of reaching a final decision.

She also stuck with the GOP conference in voting to acquit Trump on two articles of impeachment earlier this year — another crucial win for McConnell, who is also up for reelection this year and made it a high priority to keep his conference unified.

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The Kavanaugh vote has made Collins into a villain for many Democrats, and helped Gideon’s fundraising.

Collins on Thursday says she doesn’t expect any political favors and asserted her advocacy for more state and local funding is based on entirely on the needs of her home state.

“It’s not a political issue. It’s an issue of trying to help prevent widespread layoffs of firefighters, police officers and schoolteachers. That’s what’s motivating this,” she said.

Asked about McConnell’s staunch opposition to another round of state and local funding, she said: “You’d have to ask him. I don’t know where he’s going to end up.”

Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, says McConnell likely knows that giving ground in the debate over additional state and local funding could help him keep his majority.

“His primary motive is going to be saving Susan Collins and saving his majority,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some feeling of gratitude there but with McConnell it’s all about saving the majority.

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“That’s one reason I thought he’d come through with some more help for state and local. There may be strings attached, there may be conditions but the support for that among governors and local officials is so broad and bipartisan that they just can’t do a Ford-to-New-York drop-dead routine,” he added.

McConnell on Thursday signaled his opposition to more state and local funding is softening. 

He told Fox News’s Martha MacCallum “we may later do more.”

But he said Congress needs to let the $150 billion appropriated in the CARES Act for local governments “fully kick in” and then “look at the impact of the states beginning to open up.”

“Then we can make an intelligent decision about the size and the appropriate package to put together,”  he said.