This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The House and the Senate are working this week to reconcile serious sticking points between their two tax bills. The House bill, for example, makes no changes to the Affordable Care Act, while the Senate bill repeals the individual mandate requiring everyone to buy health insurance, as well as the accompanying federal subsidies for low- and middle-income Americans. This will leave 13 million people uninsured and hike premiums for everyone else by at least 10 percent, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who stood firm against the repeal of the ACA to protect her constituents, caved last Friday. She traded her vote on the tax bill for promises that two Obamacare bills will pass before year’s end and mitigate — but not prevent — the damage from lost coverage, climbing premiums and potential cuts to Medicare. Many of her constituents think her rationale is shaky at best, and that congressional Republicans might deep-six the deal altogether. Sarah Jaffe talked to Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, about the reaction in Maine.
Sarah Jaffe: Tell us what went on in Maine this Monday, the first weekday after the Republican Senate passed the tax bill and your senator voted for the tax cuts.
Michael Tipping: As you may remember, Susan Collins, upon returning to Maine after voting against the Republican health care repeal, was applauded at the airport. There were scenes of people on the street thanking her for her vote. This time she stayed in DC and did the Sunday shows, while in Maine people were protesting up and down the state and are continuing to do so all this week.
On Monday in Bangor, dozens of people were outside her office and five very brave souls went inside and refused to leave until she talked to them about her vote. She did not and the protestors got arrested and carted out in a police van. I think people believe that she’s not listening to them, that she’s doing real damage to the state, that she’s been lying about her votes and about the policy and that they’re not going to take it anymore.
— Michael Tipping, Maine People's Alliance
SJ: Sen. Collins was one of the three votes that stopped the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and she’s known for being something of an independent Republican. Talk about watching her go through this and deciding to vote for the tax cuts.
MT: One thing to remember about Susan Collins is that she has been moderate on many issues, but the second part of the formulation — the Republican part — is almost more important. She may not be as ideological as Ted Cruz, but she is a hardcore Republican. She cares about the party, she cares about her leadership, she doesn’t want to offend her colleagues. If she can find a way to vote for something, whether it’s procedural tricks or being able to claim she got some kind of deal, she will do it to advance their interests.
On this bill it was an interesting process: She sat down with President Trump and apparently got some promises out of him, and is perhaps the only person in the world who trusts promises from President Trump. But she was told she would get some health care bills that do a bit of work around the edges, that she would get some tax cuts changed in some slight ways, and now it looks like even that is not going to happen. But even if she did get those concessions, they are fig leaves for an awful bill that dramatically increases inequality, that blows a hole in the deficit, that will lead to deep health care cuts and cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
SJ: Tell me about Maine in particular. What will this bill would do to Maine?
MT: Maine is not home to a lot of giant multinational corporations and rich CEOs. We have a lot of people who work in traditional industries on the ocean or in the forest. We have one of the highest rates of small-business employment in the country. There are many people who work at or run small businesses. And Maine has the oldest population, by median age, in the country now. We have 300,000 people that rely on Medicare, and this is an incredibly damaging vote for her constituents. And we’re the most rural state east of the Mississippi, so the provisions in this bill that target seniors and small businesses and rural areas will harm people in Maine.
That’s why there’s been so much protest and so much feeling of betrayal by Susan Collins. Just a few weeks ago said she would not vote for the health care bill because it made some of the same cuts. Just a few months ago, she said she would never vote for a bill without a full Congressional Budget Office score and hearings, and she really defended the institution of the Senate. Then she goes and votes for a bill that has handwritten scribbles in the margins and things crossed out. She betrayed a lot of the things that she claimed to stand for and upon which she built her reputation as a common-sense moderate — those are out the window.
SJ: And already Marco Rubio is saying this is the path to cutting Social Security and Medicare, which is certainly important to the oldest state in the country.
MT: He really let the cat out of the bag there. You would think he’d wait until it passes to start talking about how they’re going to use it to cut Social Security.
Along those lines, Collins also went on the Sunday shows and said that this won’t actually increase the deficit, that we will see growth that outpaces it. She even cited some economists, but now they’ve walked that back and that even the most conservative-leaning estimate still puts half a trillion dollars into the deficit. The Joint Committee on Taxation says a trillion dollars, and of course that is going to have to come from cuts to health care and Social Security; that’s what Republicans want and that’s what they’ll push for.
Before this happened, Susan Collins was recently chosen as co-chair of No Labels, which is a centrist deficit hawk group. Their whole thing is saying that the deficit is already so large that they have to go after people’s health care and to go after Social Security. Now she’s voted to explode the deficit further and really damage those things she claimed to care about.
SJ: With this bill the Republicans are certainly proving that anyone pretending to care about deficits was lying. Chuck Schumer and others are handwringing about deficits when this bill is going to cause actual harm. I can’t imagine that controlling the deficit is the most compelling argument for the people you work with on the ground in Maine.
MT: I think people understand that increasing the deficit means cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and they’re definitely worried about that. This bill makes a $25 billion cut to Medicare right off the bat through the paygo rule. And there is, what they’re calling the “sneaky repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, which gets rid of the insurance mandates and plunges 13 million people into the ranks of the uninsured. So all those things are immediate and scary, but there’s the bigger picture too.
— Michael Tipping, Maine People's Alliance
I think a lot of people said concerns about the deficit were artificial when they were being used as rationales to cut Medicare and Social Security, but Sen. Collins has always trumpeted them. Sen. Collins is a centrist but not a moderate in many ways. She is the one that made President Obama scale back the stimulus package during the Great Recession. That’s actually one of the more interesting things in her career. She didn’t have a strong ideological basis for the amount that she wanted for the stimulus; she just chose a number exactly in the middle of what the Republicans wanted and what President Obama wanted and said this is where I stand.
And what that did, people have pointed out, is made the stimulus less effective. A lot more money than necessary went to tax cuts, some to the wealthy. It delayed the recovery, it allowed Republicans to campaign on a bad economy, it got a lot more of them elected and it turns out all of that was a terrible farce, because now Sen. Collins doesn’t actually care about the deficit anyway.
SJ: That is the most perfect description of centrism I’ve heard. What do you think the odds are of getting her to flip on this final bill, whatever it is, when it comes out of conference?
MT: I think we’re already seeing some movement. She has tried to defend her vote and tried to defend the Republicans even when they’ve broken their promises to her, and said that these other bills she wanted in exchange for her vote actually won’t be part of the continuing resolution. And at first she said maybe these bills will happen by the end of the year, and now she’s changed her story about that. She has also walked back a bit, saying that while the tax bill has the potential to create growth, it won’t necessarily create enough growth to erase the deficit.
I don’t know if she’ll change her story enough to stop the bill before the next vote, which could come later this week.
But I think she’s definitely feeling the pressure according to front-page headlines Tuesday. The protests were on the evening newscasts, people got arrested and her staff was apparently having a heated conversation with the police, trying not to make this a visual thing as people were being hauled out in handcuffs. Collins is very concerned about that moderate image that she has tried to project. I think that is at risk here. If people continue to speak out I think there could be a chance to stop her final vote.
SJ: Do you have folks from Maine going to DC?
MT: We’ve had folks from Maine going, bringing stories and handwritten notes directly to her offices. The phone calls are good, emails are good, but having a handwritten letter that we can deliver, if we can get it there in time, will let her know these are the voices of her constituents and the stories they are telling.
SJ: And what are the plans for the rest of the week?
MT: There are protests that took place on Tuesday in Portland and in Kittery, and there are more scheduled later in the week in Orland and in Lewiston, and more in Bangor. People are doing things all over. There are Indivisible groups that are doing things independently all the time. They are trying to find Sen. Collins to talk to her about this. To flood her phone lines, people can call her Washington office and leave a message at (202) 224-2523 — a number I have memorized at this point — to let her know where they stand. It’s really all-out the rest of the week to try to make sure that this lasting damage isn’t done to Maine and to our country.
SJ: How can people keep up with you and with Maine People’s Alliance?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.