When Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) came under attack from one of her state’s leading newspapers, the Portland Press Herald, one of her Senate colleagues was quick to leap to her defense.
But it was not Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), perhaps the most powerful man in the Senate. Nor was it fellow Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
In a chamber as fraught with partisan tension as it has been at perhaps any time in history, it was instead Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who took to the ramparts for Collins.
A Press Herald editorial lambasted Collins for being weak on Congressional spending restraints — challenging her commitment to a Senate amendment that would reinstitute “pay as you go” rules for both new spending and tax cuts. The amendment passed with the support of nearly all Democrats and just four Republicans, including Collins and Snowe.
House GOP leaders want to apply so-called PAYGO rules only to new spending but not tax cuts, and a resolution to the ongoing House-Senate budget fight hinges on Collins and Snowe’s decision on what they will support.
Saying Snowe “proved her integrity” by “bucking her party and standing up for what is right,” the Portland Press Herald in an April 2 editorial challenged Collins to “show she has the same leadership, the same strength, the same fearlessness as Snowe.”
But the letters to the editor on April 11 told a different story.
“As the author of the proposed budget enforcement rules known as ‘pay as you go,’ I was surprised to read your editorial questioning the commitment of Maine Sen. Susan Collins to my proposal,” wrote Feingold.
He went on to write that “she has held firm to the principle as the Senate and House conferees negotiate a final budget. This position is consistent with her long-standing commitment to fiscal discipline.”
So just what was Feingold doing reading the Portland Press Herald?
“I talked to him, and he offered to do it,” Collins said in an interview.
Indeed, Feingold vigorously defended Collins as a stalwart fiscal conservative despite her admitted willingness to shorten from five years to one year the time frame that his “pay as you go” rules would apply to Congress.
“I’m sure it’s possible that [budget] gimmicks will win the day, but I’m confident it won’t be because of Sen. Collins,” said Feingold in an interview. “I’m sure she’ll hold out for the best we can get.”
Feingold said his letter-writing campaign elicited no promises from Collins that she would support the unadulterated version of his amendment in the final budget.
Saying she was “puzzled” that the Portland Press Herald would “question my integrity,” Collins clarified Wednesday her position on the amendment: “It is identical to what it’s always been. I think PAYGO should apply to both tax cuts and entitlement expansions. The only thing I’ve indicated some flexibility on is the number of years.”
Meanwhile, the Portland Press Herald struck again this past weekend, opining that, “This is likely one of the more critical decisions in Collins’ Senate career. If she decides to compromise her position on pay-go, she will be choosing her party over the welfare of the Maine people.”
No word on whether Feingold is heading back to the ramparts.