It will be a bipartisan night for Maine lawmakers when President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday to a joint session of Congress.

Traditionally, Democrats and Republicans sit separately at the State of the Union. The bipartisan seating movement was sparked last year by a desire for more civility on Capitol Hill after the shooting in Arizona that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed six people.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, will sit with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. They are the top Republican and the chairman, respectively, of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will pair up with independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Collins is the committee’s top Republican.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, will go bipartisan as well but will make a “game time” decision as he enters the House chamber about whom to join, his office said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, sat with members of her bipartisan congressional softball team last year. She said last week that she might seek out those teammates again as seatmates.

Some have irreverently dubbed it “date night” on Capitol Hill.

Turning up heat for heat aid

Maine lawmakers want Obama to devote more money to a low-income heating assistance program in his 2013 budget proposal, which is due out next month.

Collins and Snowe joined 38 other senators in writing a letter to Obama last week, urging him to seek at least $4.7 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

LIHEAP got $4.7 billion in 2011, but Obama’s budget for this fiscal year sought just $2.57 billion. Congress upped the ante to $3.5 billion, but that still means a major cut for this winter heating season.

Maine got $56.5 million in LIHEAP funding last winter, but less than $40 million this season. That’s after a final installment of $10 million for Maine, released last week by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Snowe said the average Mainer in the program will get $483 this season. Last winter, 63,802 Mainers got benefits averaging $802 over the heating season, according to the Maine State Housing Authority, which administers the program.

Pingree and Michaud also back more spending.

Working on military’s wheels

Michaud has a budget suggestion for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the Maine Democrat hopes will boost work for the Maine Military Authority.

About 200 workers at the facility in Limestone repair Humvees and other vehicles, mainly for the National Guard.

Sending more types of vehicles, and from other branches of the military, to the facility can only aid the Obama administration’s quest to trim defense spending, Michaud said last week in a letter to Panetta.

“As you continue to look for ways to cut the (Defense Department) budget, I urge you to consider the savings potential of MMA’s high-quality, cost-efficient refurbishing capacity,” Michaud wrote.

Student loan jungle

Pingree wants the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to examine whether private student loan companies saddle unqualified candidates with debt.

Pingree wrote a letter last week to the bureau, which has been looking into whether more safeguards are needed for people who take out private student loans.

Pingree says the answer is yes.

“Unqualified candidates are often approved for loans even when they have very little chance of ever being able to repay their debts,” Pingree said.

The bureau, created by the 2010 financial overhaul law, got attention recently when GOP senators blocked the nomination of Richard Cordray to be the agency’s director. Obama used a recess appointment to put Cordray in office anyway.

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]


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