Members of Maine’s congressional delegation were united in their opposition Thursday to President’s Trump plan to divert $37 million in heating assistance for low-income households to help pay for the country’s response to the coronavirus threat.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, joined Democratic Reps. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont in drafting a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees asking them to reject the administration’s entire $2.5 billion emergency funding request.

“Firstly, we believe this request is simply insufficient to deal with the challenges our country faces in combating the coronavirus,” the House members wrote. “Furthermore, the manner in which the president is proposing to fund this effort will only further harm the most vulnerable individuals and families in our community by robbing $37 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).”

Sen. Angus King, in a telephone interview, called the move “unconscionable,” and said he plans to communicate his concerns to both appropriations committees and the White House.

“I give the administration credit for coming forward with a plan, but nicking home heating is not the way,” Maine’s independent senator said, calling LIHEAP a lifeline for Mainers, especially those in rural communities, during cold winter months.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, agreed. She has long been an advocate for LIHEAP funding and last year helped push for a $50 million increase in the program’s funds.

“The need to provide additional funding to fight the coronavirus is urgent, but transferring money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is the wrong approach and would hurt low-income families struggling to pay their heating bills,” the senator said in a tweet.

And Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, said he couldn’t see how the proposal would be taken seriously.

“Coronavirus is a pressing threat that needs serious solutions right now, and I expect this Congress will put forward a plan that funds our national response to coronavirus without leaving thousands of Mainers out in the cold,” Golden said in a statement.

The move isn’t a surprise since Trump has twice tried to eliminate the $3 billion annual program entirely.

LIHEAP is a federal program, under the Department of Health and Human Services, that provides heating assistance to low-income individuals. The program is often targeted for cuts because some states, including Maine, benefit from it far more than others.

In Maine, the LIHEAP program is administered by MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority. Last year, more than 30,000 Maine households received $36 million in assistance through the program, which provides money for repairing and replacing heating systems and weatherization improvements in addition to emergency fuel assistance.

“It’s unfortunate that the people who need help to heat their homes are essentially paying for a public health threat that affects all of us,” MaineHousing spokeswoman Cara Courchesne said. “We hope that the president and Congress can work together to find an alternative solution to funding the coronavirus response.”

Pingree, in her joint letter, said the elimination of $37 million in LIHEAP funding could leave 750,000 families across the country without assistance. It’s not clear how many in Maine could be affected.

Of the $2.5 billion sought by the administration for the coronavirus response, $1.25 billion would be new spending and likely would need congressional approval. The rest would be diverted from other places and would not need to go before Congress, although lawmakers could always vote to restore any funding that’s diverted.

In addition to diverting $37 million from LIHEAP, the president has proposed transferring $535 million from an Ebola preparedness account to combat coronavirus, a move some critics have likened to trying to solve one problem by creating another.

Many members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, have said the $2.5 billion response to the coronavirus threat is inadequate. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, referred to it as a “low ball” amount, according to the Washington Post. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, has proposed $8.5 billion in spending.

Additionally, Pingree and the two Massachusetts congressmen criticized the administration for proposing major cuts in the 2021 budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health. Those cuts are not likely to have widespread support in Congress.

Christopher Knight, a spokesman for Collins, said the senator strongly opposes any proposed cuts to the CDC or NIH.

King said he would have preferred to see the president take money away from the border wall being built in Texas and Arizona, even though that would be unlikely. The senator said the recent response to coronavirus is emblematic of the administration’s short-sighted approach to matters of public health. Last year, King joined others in criticizing the administration for ending a surveillance program called PREDICT that helped predict emerging zoonotic infectious diseases. Although White House officials said at the time that similar research would be part of future budgets, King said it hasn’t happened yet.

Trump has sought to simultaneously downplay the risk of coronavirus spreading in the United States and to assure citizens that his administration is on top of things. On Wednesday, he appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration’s coronavirus task force, but also said the country is not a great risk, contradicting what other experts have said.

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