In a Dec. 16, 2021, file photo, Daniel DiDonato, a deliveryman for Heatable, brings heating oil to a home in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The likelihood of a major heating aid bill passing before the holidays appeared slim Thursday, the day after Senate Republicans voted down the $474 million package Gov. Janet Mills had negotiated with legislative leaders in an acrimonious start to a new legislative session.

Mills on Thursday placed blame for the failure of the heating aid bill squarely on Senate Republicans. She called on them to reconsider their Wednesday night votes against the package, which would deliver $450 relief checks to most Mainers as well as provide funding for heating assistance for low-income households and money for emergency housing.

“The governor negotiated in good faith and delivered a substantive compromise for Republicans, only to have the Senate Republicans walk away,” Mills’ spokesperson Lindsay Crete said Thursday.

Mills’ statement reflected Democrats’ outrage about Senate Republicans’ opposition to the measure, which was designed to deliver heating aid swiftly as the weather becomes colder and energy prices spike. While Democrats hold majorities in both legislative chambers, the measure had to pass with two-thirds support to take effect immediately and allow the state to begin distributing the aid.

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, accused Senate Republicans of duplicity and of using the legislative process as an excuse to block a bill they didn’t support. It’s an argument Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart flatly rejected, saying Jackson was trying to “smear” Senate Republicans for not going along with him.

“We have been consistent in our position, which has been that my caucus wants this massive spending bill to go through a public hearing,” Stewart said.

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson appears during the Senate debate over an emergency heating aid bill on Wednesday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

In order to pass the legislation quickly, lawmakers suspended their normal procedure, allowing the bill to go to the House and Senate floors for votes without going through a public hearing and the vetting of a legislative committee.

Stewart, a Presque Isle Republican, also rejected statements by Jackson and Mills that Republicans had been part of substantial negotiations.

All eyes now are on Stewart and the other 12 members of his Republican caucus. They’re not powerful enough to derail standard legislation, but support from at least some of their members is necessary to reach the two-thirds threshold needed for emergency legislation. With a Democratic majority of 22 senators, at least two GOP votes were needed to pass the bill as an emergency.

It’s an outcome that was easily achieved in the House, which voted 125-16 to pass the legislation after a dramatic speech from Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a veteran representative deeply respected on budget matters, who said valid concerns about the process should be set aside amid a heating crisis.

There were some signs of division between House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday night, as Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor, the House Republican leader, said the members of his caucus had done their part to pass the relief bill. 

Asked about potential GOP divisions, Stewart said, “We don’t browbeat our members if there’s a disagreement on how to vote.” Faulkingham said he believes the bill will eventually pass the Senate when it reconvenes in January.

Also on blast from Jackson were four of the five Republicans who were “excused” from Wednesday night’s vote. Only Sen. Bradlee Farrin, R-Norridgewock, had sought the “necessary permission” for that excused absence, along with Democratic Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby said.

Republican Sens. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn, Peter Lyford of Eddington, Matthew Pouliot of Augusta and Jeff Timberlake of Turner had not, Kirby said.

Guerin said she had to leave the Senate early Wednesday to attend a funeral, but would have voted with eight Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth, to send the bill to a committee for a public hearing and vetting.

“I knew before I left that my vote would not change the outcome of the bill,” Guerin said.

The other three Republicans who were excused did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but Stewart said that Lyford had a prior commitment for a vote on a local planning board, Pouliot had a flight and Timberlake’s absence was health-related.

Farrin was also absent due to air travel, Stewart said. Chipman did not respond to a request for comment.

It is up to the Senate president to excuse an absence.

Kirby said it was Jackson’s general policy to excuse members of the other party who are not present as an “olive branch” and due to the fact that Maine has a part-time Legislature. But that policy may go by the wayside after Wednesday night.

“He does not tolerate folks taking a walk on votes,” Kirby said. “It is an affront to the work Maine people sent them here to do.”

Given the reason for the absences, Stewart said the notion that anyone in his caucus took a walk was clearly untrue.

Sen. James Libby, R-Standish, in his freshman term as a senator, said he was pleased Senate Republicans had stood up for what they believed in. While he said it was possible the Senate could convene before January, he forecasted that it was “50-50, maybe less than that.”

He said Thursday he hadn’t heard from constituents on the matter yet, but said he would tell them the way the bill was set to pass would not have been just. The ball is now in the Democrats’ court, he said.

“I don’t think any of us in the Senate caucus really felt like that was the right thing to do,” Libby said. “We hope we can move on with the process and we can help because these are real needs.”