AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted Wednesday afternoon to relax Maine’s welfare policies to allow asylum seekers and other legally present non-citizens to qualify for General Assistance, food stamps and other assistance programs.

But tensions rose on the House floor with one member being escorted from the chamber before the 88-51 vote divided largely along partisan lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. During the debate, both supporters and opponents claimed the moral high ground on the issues of immigration and how Maine should be spending its limited welfare dollars. The bill now faces a vote in the Senate, which hadn’t acted late Wednesday as the Legislature appeared likely to continue its work into Thursday despite a Wednesday adjournment date.

Supporters watered down the original version of the bill substantially by directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Resources to offer assistance to non-citizens “within available resources.” That change was intended to avoid having to find additional money to pay the bill’s multimillion-dollar price tag, particularly as Portland struggles to shelter hundreds of newly arrived asylum seekers.

Republican lawmakers still opposed the watered-down version, however, as they accused supporters of prioritizing non-citizens over elderly, disabled or homeless Mainers on wait lists for assistance.

“Once again the individuals who have been waiting for services will fall to the back of the bus,” said Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick. “Any existing resources that are available at any time should be used on those individuals who are currently here and have been waiting.”

Supporters of extending welfare benefits to asylum seekers, meanwhile, argued that the state has a moral obligation to help individuals who arrived in Maine after fleeing persecution in their home countries.

“I would not be here today if when my grandmother came over from Ireland, the people of Portland turned their back on her,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, a former city mayor. “When she became a widow with four children, if the city of Portland had turned their back on her, I would not be here today. So I think we have no choice because it is part of our heritage, because of who we are as a state.”

As originally proposed, the bill sponsored by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, would have removed restrictions on non-citizens qualifying for General Assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and MaineCare. Those restrictions were imposed during the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who successfully campaigned twice on welfare reform.

The bill has been on the back-burner for months but gained urgency in recent weeks as Portland struggles to accommodate a surge of asylum seekers making their way to Maine from the southern border. More than 200 people – most from central African countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – are being housed temporarily at the Portland Expo.

City officials have received more than $350,000 in donations during the past week to help families at the Expo. But the city also has warned it will need state assistance.

Some bill opponents had little sympathy for Maine’s largest city as it grapples with the new arrivals.

“Portland (is) begging to be bailed out by state taxpayers, that’s what is before us today,” said Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley. “Portland’s problem, which Portland has brought on itself by broadcasting far and wide from the rooftops that we welcome non-citizens including people who are illegal immigrants.”

While the debate also took on racial overtones, at times, many of the comments focused on whether Maine can afford to provide assistance to non-citizens who are in the country legally. Supporters talked about Maine’s aging demographics and workforce shortages even as they recalled how previous waves of French, Irish, Italian, Canadian and other immigrants helped fill factory jobs.

“Now we have more people coming to Maine today and they are going to do the same thing,” said Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland. “Their skin may be different and they may speak different languages, but they want to be in Maine. And I commend them for coming here and I welcome them here. They need help now.”

The atmosphere grew tense at times. And the debate devolved when Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, called Rep. Sheldon Hanington, R-Lincoln, to the well of the chamber to explain her request that he not impugn other members’ motives based on the rules of the House.

Hanington, after a brief exchange with Gideon, stormed from the chamber down the center aisle only to quickly return and shout at Gideon, saying she was a “weasel.” Hanington said she had called him a “terrorist” last session and then shouted, “You don’t know what a terrorist is.”

Hanington was then escorted from the House floor by Rep. Scott Strom, R-Pittsfield, and Assistant Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle.

Hanington took to the House floor again later in the day and apologized for his outburst during the welfare debate.

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