“Seal the deal!” – Mainers rally to urge King, other elected officials to support ‘transformative’ budget bill / by Evan Popp

That was the message sent to Sen. Angus King and other members of the state’s delegation at a rally in Brunswick on Thursday, where Mainers called on federal lawmakers to support the budget bill moving through Congress, arguing that the legislation represents a historic opportunity to make much-needed investments in climate, care and immigration reform. 

“I’m here today to tell Senator King and our other representatives in Congress that we, the voters, want you to stay the course and seal the deal on the progressive gains in the federal reconciliation package,” said Rafael Macias of Topsham, who introduced the speakers at the rally, which was organized by Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project). 

Macias was referring to the budget bill Senate Democrats have put forward, which is slated to use the reconciliation process, allowing it to avoid a Republican filibuster. A $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal passed an initial vote in the Senate recently. King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted for that framework while Republican Sen. Susan Collins opposed it. That bill would provide a large-scale expansion of the social safety net, take on the climate crisis and reform the immigration system, advocates argue. 

Specific programs Macias said progressives are hoping to get into the final version of the legislation include an expansion of Medicaid in the states that have not yet done so; strong investments to tackle the growing climate crisis; and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers, DREAMers, and those who have been forced to flee their countries because of violence or natural disasters. 

From left: Anna Siegel, Rita Welch and Ladislas Nzeyimana at Thursday’s rally | Maine People’s Alliance

With the details of the legislation still being drafted, the more than 50 people gathered for the rally urged King — who later that day announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 — to ensure the legislation remains far-reaching and includes provisions to take significant action on the plethora of problems facing the country.

Those at the rally also called on Second District Rep. Jared Golden to support the package. Golden recently came out as part of a group of nine centrist House Democrats who said they wouldn’t vote for the reconciliation legislation unless a bipartisan infrastructure bill is first signed into law, a stance that threatens to stymie progress on the budget package.

“Blocking the budget resolution means letting the rich and corporations off the hook from paying their fair share and endangering historic investments in care, education, housing, and clean energy that will lower costs for working families,” Macias said, urging those at the event to contact Golden and ask him to support the reconciliation deal. 

‘Code red’ on climate 

One focus of the rally was the need to take substantial action to address climate change. During her speech, Anna Siegel, a high schooler who organizes with Maine Youth for Climate Justice, quoted United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who said the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report represents “a code red for humanity.”   

Despite the grim prognosis laid out in that report, Siegal said it’s essential for advocates not to give up. 

“As an artist, I can say with confidence that there are many shades of red, from the light, safer pink of a new day’s dawn to the deep, dangerous scarlet of a scorching summer,” Siegel said. “We can have hope for the future while we double down on activism to make sure we don’t end up with a red-soaked paintbrush.” 

Siegel said doing so means pushing for passage of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill to begin making the necessary investments in climate solutions.

“For that to happen, we need an all-hands-on-deck movement with everyone engaged, from a constituent calling Senator King about the reconciliation bill to Senator King himself backing the bill,” she said. 

Ladislas Nzeyimana, a sophomore at Bowdoin College, also spoke about the climate crisis. He said the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world as well as at home, pointing to the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than almost all the world’s oceans. Nzeyimana argued that the $3.5 trillion budget package would begin to address the problem by putting many young people to work on climate solutions, investing $400 billion in clean energy and allocating funds to build green affordable housing. 

“The time to take action on this is now,” he said. 

Health care reform 

Another topic at the rally was the opportunity in the budget package to make much-needed investments in the U.S. health care system.

The crowd at the rally | Beacon photo

Patty Kidder, a long-time health care activist and member of Maine People’s Alliance, spoke at the event about losing her health insurance nine years ago because her youngest child graduated high school and turned 18. Kidder said that experience spurred her to join MPA and its fight to expand Medicaid in Maine, which was ultimately successful despite the opposition of former Gov. Paul LePage. 

Still, around the country, 12 states have refused to expand Medicaid, Kidder said. Congressional Democrats are aiming to close that coverage gap, which impacts 2.2 million people, within the reconciliation legislation, which Kidder said would be a massive step forward that would help many people around the country get access to the health care they need. 

“We need our legislators to be health care heroes for the American people,” she said. “We need Congress and our president to pass the transformative $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill now.” 

Brandy Staples, a resident of Phippsburg, added during her speech that far too many people have had to make difficult choices about health care because of the broken system in the U.S. That system impacted her when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 26 and struggled to get coverage for treatment. If the reconciliation bill is passed, far fewer people would have to face the terror of being denied coverage, Staples said. 

“We all know health care isn’t a luxury item — it’s a human right,” she said. 

When it comes to making investments in health care and other expansive social programs, a common question is how to pay for it. Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) tackled that question during his speech at the rally. Fecteau, who argued that the budget package represents “the most transformative economic and social agenda” since the Great Society programs of the 1960s, said a key is tax fairness.  

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau at Thursday’s rally | Maine People’s Alliance

Fecteau noted that last year, 55 of the largest corporations in the U.S. paid nothing in federal taxes. That is unacceptable, he said. 

“We need a tax code that isn’t balanced on the backs of low and middle income workers — the uber-wealthy and big corporations must pay their fair share,” he said. 

Fecteau praised King for introducing legislation recently that seeks to prevent large corporations from paying nothing in federal taxes and added that he hopes the senator will support raising taxes on the top 1%. 

‘Broad pathway to citizenship’ needed

Nzeyimana also spoke at the rally about the need for immigration reform. The budget reconciliation bill includes a variety of changes to the system, including permanent residency for some immigrants. 

Nzeyimana said immigrants have worked hard amid the pandemic to help keep the country afloat and provide essential services. But too often, he said, they have been repaid with persecution and deportation. That must change, he argued. 

“A path to citizenship would recognize these individuals who’ve put their life at risk but are still denied the right to belong in the place they call home,” Nzeyimana said. 

Rita Welch, an immigrant from Colombia who now lives in Portland, added that as the richest country in the world, the U.S. has a duty to help those escaping violence and oppression. She said conservatives in Congress are likely to try to water down immigration reform efforts and called on King and other members of the state’s delegation to oppose such efforts. 

“Senator King must stay strong in his support for including a path to citizenship for undocumented essential workers, [temporary protected status] recipients, and DREAMers,” Welch said. “And Senator King, we know you’ll do it — because it is the right thing to do.” 

Source: Maine Beacon, August 20, 2021 | https://mainebeacon.com/

Author: Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.