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Political Brew: Transgender bills, debt talks, and Dr. Shah could lead CDC

NEWS CENTER Maine's political analysts weigh in on the major political issues of the week.

PORTLAND, Maine — NEWS CENTER Maine political analysts, Republican Phil Harriman and Democrat Betsy Sweet, shared their takes on the major political issues in Maine and the country in the last week from bills targeting transgender people to calls for Dr. Nirav Shah to take the lead at the U.S. CDC. 

Transgender, Parents' Rights Bills

This week, lawmakers in Augusta debated several bills that take aim at transgender people in the state. One piece of legislation would ban transgender girls from competing on girls' sports teams. The other would ban public schools from using names or pronouns for students other than what's listed on their birth certificates without parental permission.

ZACH: Betsy, I want to start with you. Proponents of this say this is about parental rights. Is that how you see it?

BETSY: No. This is about young people's rights and to be young people. And, you know, I just think that certain elements within the Republican Party look for the weakest, the most, the hardest people, the people who are most marginalized and say, "Okay, we're going to go after them..." That's why we see a bunch of bills that are aimed at those young people who already are struggling and trying to make it in this world that doesn't necessarily accept them. This is just a political ploy, and to use young people in that kind of political game is appalling.

PHIL: Contrary to what Betsy just said, Republicans don't think that way. They're not out to marginalize anybody. I think it's more about the role of the parent and the education system that their children are in. And I think to go beyond that is unfair to the child and to the parents.

"No Labels" Voting Concerns

We still have months to go until Election Day, but Maine's Secretary of State is raising concerns about an effort she says is confusing voters. "No Labels" is looking to establish itself as a political party in states across the country. The organization was issued a cease and desist by Secretary Shenna Bellows. Bellow's office sent letters to more than 60,00 voters who registered with "No Labels" to make sure they meant to. 

ZACH: Phil, Bellows is a Democrat. Do you see this move as a partisan one?

PHIL: No, I don't. I think she's doing her job: the rules in Maine about party affiliation and how you enroll, and more importantly, how you get official status as a party enabling you to be on the ballot in the nomination process. She's doing her job and good for her.

BETSY: That's it. Yeah. I mean, I think I think this new "No Labels" group is—we have to take a hard look at it. I understand that people are frustrated with it with the two-party system. I am too. But this group purports to be one thing. And then if you look at who some of their donors are, one of their big donors is Harlan Crow, the same guy who just was wining and dining Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. So, you know, it's not a group with no political agenda. It's not a group with no labels. 

Collins Defense Contractor Donations

Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, is dealing with a bad headline this week. A former defense contractor is pleading guilty to making more than $200,000 in illegal contributions to Collins' 2020 campaign. This was after Collins helped the firm he was the CEO of secure an $8 million Navy contract. Senator Collins' team says the campaign had no knowledge and has cooperated fully with the FBI.

ZACH: Betsy, obviously Collins has time and time again proven that she can handle the heat in these kinds of situations, is this the kind of thing that will stick for her long-term?

BETSY: No, I think I mean, and I don't think this is so much about Susan Collins as it is about money in politics. I mean, the fact that they were able to create a shell corporation and then funnel almost $150,000 by creating a shell corporation, by giving money, that's like me giving money to Phil to give to the candidate. It is a little bit hard to believe she didn't know anything as a candidate who ran for the U.S. Senate in that race, actually in the primary. I mean, every time someone wrote a big check, it was like, hey, this is so great. 

PHIL: To Betsy's point, the crux of what happened here, is these were straw contributions, money being shifted elsewhere that came through a donor, that it would be easy for Senator Collins to not know. The key takeaway for me is that once she knew she cooperated fully, once the amount was identified, she donated it to a school system.

Sen. King, Collins Asylum Seekers Bill

Sen. Angus King and Sen. Susan Collins are co-sponsoring a bill to strengthen security along the southern border while also helping asylum seekers get jobs. Sen. Kirsten Cinema, D-Arizona, has also signed on. Among other things, it would make asylum seekers eligible to receive work authorization starting just 30 days after applying for asylum.

ZACH: Phil, on the surface, this might seem or might not seem like something Republicans would back, but is this the right way to go?

PHIL: In general, I think it is. It's a couple of years too late, but at least it's being introduced. I think the work requirement that people who were here and want to work, who can't. That helps them. It helps our economy. But let's remember a high percentage of the people who are claiming asylee status are denied that status and arguably are going to be sent back to their home country.

BETSY: Well, I think part of this bill, too, is to help with vetting people as they come across the border. So there's a lot of parts of this bill. I think that's a really important part. I think quickening, by providing them more resources to quicken the process is really important. And I think this ability to work, I mean, now they have to wait six months at a time when our employers need people and they want to work.

Debt Talks 

Negotiations continue over the debt limit. In fact, President Biden is expected to return from the G7 in Japan Sunday, cutting his trip short to get back to the table with congressional leadership. One sticking point: Republicans now say they want to add tougher work requirements for some federal aid programs. 

ZACH: Is this the time and place for this kind of negotiation?

PHIL: Probably, probably not. But as late as Friday early afternoon, they decided to take a break. So it will be interesting to see what comes out upon the president's return. But it was clear to me by Wednesday of this past week that all of the political leaders in Washington were saying, we're close, we're making progress. We're going to find a way to get this done. And they need to.

BETSY: That's it. Yeah, I don't think that's an appropriate place to do other political negotiating and so I was heartened to hear that everyone feels like they're closer. I think we will get there and I hope we'll get there without setting a precedent for trying to establish law and policy in this negotiation, which is just about paying our debts.

House Dems 

In the House, Democrats failed in their efforts to force out New York Congressman George Santos. Santos, who has made headlines for lying about his resume, is facing federal fraud charges. Republicans pushed a party-line vote through to send the issue to the House Ethics Committee. 

ZACH: Betsy, one might think this would be pretty cut and dry for both sides, but is it what it appears to be? 

BETSY: You know, it's astonishing to me, you know, and I think that they're looking at the numbers game that they have in Congress and that they need his vote. But there is nobody who can look at this guy, all of the indictments against him, what he's done, as you you know, he has lied about just about everything. I can't imagine that there's not people on both sides of the aisle, certainly Republicans as well, who say, "You know what, this affects the integrity of our entire system and we have to do this regardless of what the numbers are." They'll still have a majority. It is appalling to me that they have not acted in the other direction yet.

PHIL: You know, earlier in the Political Brew segment after this story first broke, that was my comment. He should be taken before the Ethics Committee within Congress. I think to say he's guilty and expel him is not the right step. But certainly putting him up before the Ethics Committee and have that committee report out their findings and take a vote is the right way to go.

DeSantis Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to feel the fallout from his anti-LGBTQ+ efforts. This week, he signed several bills into law doing everything from banning gender-affirming care, to expanding the state's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, and defunding diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at the state's public colleges. 

ZACH: Phil, this is someone who is set to launch a bid for president in the next week. He needs to differentiate himself from former President Donald Trump. Is this the best approach?

PHIL: Well, in order for him to sign those bills, they had to go through the Florida Legislature. So it's not just Governor DeSantis making these decisions. It's the culture of the Legislature in Florida. And it's not, in my opinion, that he's anti-anybody. It's about whatever is the appropriate place for these things to be discussed.

BETSY: This is not about where is the appropriate place for these to be discussed, What they're trying to ban is so broad and so wide. It's unbelievable. Disney just pulled up an almost billion-dollar expansion project because of this... This is a political ploy. I don't know whether he believes it personally or not. I think it's a huge political mistake. 

Dr. Shah at CDC

Maine senators said this week they are backing former Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah to take the helm at the U.S. CDC. It comes after Rochelle Walensky said she was stepping down. 

ZACH: Betsy, Dr. Shah is obviously a pretty beloved figure here in Maine. So is this much of a political risk?

BETSY: No, it's certainly not a risk, and I think it'll be awesome. I mean, he really did an incredible job getting us through this pandemic. And then plus all those people with all that, you know, "I love Dr. Shah merch" would then have a reason to wear it again.

PHIL: Well, certainly the right thing to do by our congressional delegation. If you don't have the support of the people from the state where he comes from, that's not a good way to get confirmed. But I think he's going to have a tough time to get through the confirmation process, not because of what he's done here in Maine, but because doesn't the Center for Disease Control want someone who's got a deep medical background that he doesn't have?

Winners & Losers

PHIL: My loser. This week, Zach, is the congressional leaders in the White House. There was a report issued indicating that Social Security is going to run out of money within 10 years. The administration is proposing to raise $4 trillion in new taxes and none of it is going to solve that problem. My winner this week is Virginia Oliver, 102-year-old active woman, lobster person from Rockland.

BETSY: Okay, that's pretty good. My losers this week are every member of the Republican member of the Criminal Justice Committee in Maine who voted unitedly against every single gun safety measure that was put forward a waiting period to help prevent suicide. A background check to make sure they get in the hands of the right people. All of those things were opposed across the board with tired old reasoning that just does not fit what's happening today. So they're my losers. The winner of the week is all the graduates. There are so many young people graduating from both high school but also college from Maine and other places here in Maine. And they're our hope for the future and I'm just excited for them. I hope we can give them a world that they want to be in and that they will continue to improve it.

You can catch Political Brew every week Sunday morning on NEWS CENTER Maine's Weekend Morning Report.

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