WASHINGTON — Last week, the two competing heavyweights in the debate over gun control — the National Rifle Association and Mayors Against Illegal Guns — announced that they will both “score,” or grade, members of the Senate on upcoming votes.
Both groups also have huge financial reserves that can be deployed during campaigns, but will the grades Maine’s members receive really matter with constituents back home?
It’s tough to say.
Sen. Susan Collins has a C+ rating from the NRA, which puts her tied for the lowest score among Senate Republicans. Yet she sailed to re-election in 2008 and enjoyed a 66 percent approval rating among Maine Republicans — and 60 percent among Democrats — in a recent poll.
On Saturday, Collins threw her support behind a bipartisan compromise on requiring background checks for more private sales. Although he hasn’t officially said so, it appears likely that Maine Sen. Angus King will vote to support compromise reached on expanding background checks this week.
For King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, the upcoming votes will be his first to earn a grade from the NRA. The NRA opposed him during the fall campaign while New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — the big financial backer of Mayors Against Illegal Guns — pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state to help elect the fellow independent.
Many Mainers are probably more likely to put stock in the views of a homegrown group such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine than the NRA. A MaineToday Media poll released earlier this year found that the majority of Mainers reported having guns in their households.
Asked whether he expects the votes to be used against him and other senators, King said, “Absolutely, but that’s true with virtually everything.” King said the gun issue has generated more correspondence than any other during his first few months in the Senate, with one person contacting him 300 times.
“It probably will be used politically in some elections,” King said, “but my experience is often the voters will respect you even if they disagree with you if they think you are approaching it honestly and thoughtfully.”
Both King and Collins insisted they are basing their decisions on feedback from Mainers.
“I have extensive campaigns being run by out-of-state groups on both sides trying to influence my decision, and I just want to assure the people of Maine that they are the ones I am listening to,” Collins, who is up for re-election in 2014, told reporters outside the Senate chamber.
It’s anyone’s guess how big an issue guns will be at the polls in Maine in 2014, when Collins and both U.S. House seats will be on the ballot. As for now, two recent surveys — one of which was conducted for Mayors Against Illegal Guns — showed support for expanded background checks on gun purchases polling at 85 percent and 90 percent in Maine, which is consistent with national polls. The majority of Mainers also support a ban on assault weapons, which neither Collins nor King supports, as currently written.
Late for dinner
Both Collins and King met last week with family members of those killed during the December mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
Because of her meeting with the family members, Collins said she arrived 45 minutes late for a “goodwill” dinner at the White House with President Barack Obama and other Senate Republicans.
A reportedly “furious” Collins apparently took issue with a report in Politico describing her office’s response to the family members’ request for a meeting. (The article was about how the family members have become powerful voices on Capitol Hill, insisting on face-to-face meetings with senators rather than staff members).
In a subsequent conversation with a Politico reporter, Collins then went on to give her account of how the evening played out.
“The Newtown families were VERY late for their meeting with me,” Collins said, according to a report posted Saturday on Politico’s website. “I felt a moral obligation to talk with them. I kept the president of the United States waiting. I mean, how rude is that of me? But I explained to him later that the reason I was 45 minutes late for his dinner was the Newtown families were late — very late — getting to my office, and I just could not leave without talking to them. And he was very gracious about it. He said, ‘Right call. I understand.'”
She described the meeting as “extremely moving” and has pictures given to her by the family members on her desk.
Mainer’s bill to be heard
The House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on a bill inspired by a Maine woman who struggled for decades to get the military to recognize the sexual assault she suffered as a young Navy enlistee.
The Ruth Moore Act of 2013 would loosen the evidentiary requirements for military personnel and veterans seeking disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for sexual assault incidents. Moore, who lives in Milbridge, didn’t speak publicly of the attacks on her for decades; but since last year, she has become a public face in the effort to help sexual assault survivors receive disability benefits.
The bill is sponsored by Maine’s U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Safer chemicals bill
King has joined an effort to rewrite federal chemical safety laws to strengthen protections for consumers, an issue that has fallen largely to the states.
Maine environmental and health groups have complained for years that the federal Toxics Substances Control Act needs a major overhaul in order to ensure that chemicals used in everyday products do not pose a risk to consumers, especially children. Maine state lawmakers have passed some of the nation’s most aggressive chemical safety laws, requiring manufacturers to phase out use of some flame retardants and plasticizing agents — including BPA — in products sold in the state; but groups want federal action.
A bill to rewrite aspects of the Toxics Substances Control Act passed a U.S. Senate committee last year but died with the end of the 112th Congress in January.
King is among more than two dozen senators to sign on to the 2013 version of that Senate bill. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency more tools to identify and regulate potentially unsafe chemicals.
Kevin Miller — 317-6256