WASHINGTON — The start of the 112th Congress with its GOP House majority also ushered in a new reality for U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud.

The Maine Democrats are adapting to the limitations of being in the minority in the U.S. House of Representatives, a chamber where the majority rules in virtually every way unless party unity splinters.

Pingree knows she won’t be voting in favor of sweeping legislation, such as the health care reform bill House Democrats pushed through last year.

Michaud knows the House GOP leadership will never allow a vote on legislation cracking down on foreign currency manipulation that he says harms U.S. workers by allowing artificially cheap foreign goods to be dumped on U.S. shores. Currency manipulation legislation backed by Michaud was approved last year by the House, but didn’t pass the Senate.

If the two expect to accomplish anything this year, they’ll have to focus on other strategies.

Persuading Republicans to go along with a targeted initiative is one way to get something done.

Michaud, of the 2nd Congressional District, noted in an interview last week that he teamed up with Republicans and Democrats from economically distressed rural and urban areas around the country to restore $80 million for the Economic Development Administration to a House budget bill that would cut $61 billion from the 2011 budget.

An example of EDA funding: a $1.4 million grant last September to help with construction of the Eastport Business Center and establish the Maine Marine Energy Center, money estimated to create 75 jobs, according to the EDA.

Using the bully pulpit of committee hearings is another way. This too often takes gaining the cooperation of Republicans, since the majority party chairman of a committee or subcommittee controls the agenda.

Michaud cites when he ripped JPMorgan Chase during a hearing earlier this year of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He asserted that the company was charging some active duty service members interest rates above a six percent mortgage cap and erroneously foreclosing on some homes. The company changed its ways and issued an apology a few days after the hearing.

Michaud, who was elected in 2002, four years before Democrats seized the majority, said his situation is “nothing new. Whether it’s in the minority or the majority, a lot depends on the attitude of the member of Congress and what you want to accomplish, being focused,” he said.

Working through Democrats in the Obama administration is another way of getting things done.

Pingree, along with GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, birddogged Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to free up $20 million in already approved federal funding for the Memorial Bridge Replacement project. That money was left out of the House GOP spending bill, and Maine lawmakers wanted to ensure it was doled out before any final cuts were made.

(Snowe and Collins are in the minority in the Senate, but there, a senator in the minority still has a lot of power — particularly Snowe and Collins, who are often regarded as moderate swing votes.)

Pingree says there are other, non-legislative, ways to use the powers of her office.

One example is a federal contracting forum she is holding April 12 for Maine businesses. There, smaller companies seeking to gain a foothold in the federal marketplace can meet with procurement officials and some of the corporations that hold contracts and are looking for sub-contractors.

Pingree says that after two years in the majority, it is “frustrating to be on the other side and know that now there is a different agenda. But so much of my job is not just what you see on Fox and MSNBC, and the partisan sniping and gridlock. So much of it is directly related to Maine.”

There are some differences in how Pingree and Michaud might operate in the minority.

Pingree, who became known on the national scene when she was president of Common Cause before winning her House seat in 2008, is well-positioned as a member of the House Armed Services Committee to seek money and resources for Maine from the administration, particularly the Pentagon, notes Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.

Michaud, a skeptic when it comes to trade treaties and a moderate Democrat on fiscal issues, is well-positioned as a potential swing vote that Republicans might woo, Maisel said.

Maisel says the Maine delegation has succeeded over the years in working across partisan lines, more so than many other states, to try to assure that Maine receives its share of federal dollars.

“Today, for the first time I can remember, all members of our congressional delegation are in the minority — the Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the House — and that makes working together and Michaud and Pingree working with the Obama administration more important to the state,” Maisel said.

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

 


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