Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, watches the vote tally as a member of the House of Representatives at the State House in Augusta on August 26, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Only three Senate Republicans were needed to approve a heating package including $450 relief checks for most Mainers. Gov. Janet Mills had announced a deal with legislative leaders. Democrats and most House Republicans backed it.

But Republicans in the upper chamber were obstinate, insisting on a public hearing. They got it on Wednesday, and their leader then joined a unanimous vote for the same bill.

The brinkmanship was about more than just aid. After Democrats won a third straight term in control of Augusta, allies of Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, say his aggressive line was also about letting Mills know that Republicans plan on checking her and that it was worth a delay in aid even though they ended up winning no changes.

“I would expect that any time the governor asks us to spend money, we would always take it through the process, and we would never be a rubber stamp,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield.

Stewart questioned budget commissioner Kirsten Figueroa about why the governor’s bill took money from programs that help older Mainers and those with disabilities. The holes will be filled by increased federal funds, but Senate Republicans and some who testified on the measure saw it as another example of the state not prioritizing those services.

Watching from afar, University of Maine at Farmington political scientist Jim Melcher was struck that 28-year-old Stewart was willing to take an immediate stand against Mills. He called the young leader’s specific criticisms of the bill in public politically smart.

“I think some of what we saw was the Senate Republican putting down a mark saying ‘we’re not going to have the votes to stop everything, but we want to be consulted,’” Melcher said.

The stance came with some political risk. For one, most House Republicans had already calculated that their concerns with the bill should not be enough to delay aid. Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham said shortly after the Senate vote that his caucus had “done our part.”

“We’ve come together to compromise for the Maine people,” Faulkingham said at the hearing. “That compromise has come to a conclusion, and it’s time to move on from this.”

Another one of the bill’s backers, Rep. Jack Ducharme, R-Madison, who sat on the committee, felt the hearing clarified important questions about how the programs were being funded. Only 16 House Republicans voted against the bill, including Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn who called the hearing “political theater” to rubber-stamp a measure with no long-term solutions.

Democrats also blasted Stewart and Senate Republicans for the delay, leading to a spat between the leader and governor. He said Mills lied by saying there was a deal before the vote, while her office said that group of Republicans did not want to engage on the matter.

Now that the measure is on track, those in the majority party are holding fire despite some frustration. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, noted at the hearing that there were items he did not like in the bill, but it was about prioritizing aid. His office did not respond to a request for comment on the process.

“Public participation in state legislation is an important part of the legislative process,” said Rep. Lydia Crafts, D-Newcastle. “I also think emergencies warrant strong leadership and [the House] didn’t let partisan politics get in the way and put our most vulnerable residents in the middle of political negotiations.”

It was unprecedented for lawmakers to vote on a massive spending bill on swearing-in day, noted Nick Murray, a policy analyst for the conservative Maine Policy Institute. He called Mills’ decision to push the vote an early test of the new Legislature and said the delay was worth it.

“We need a sincere change in direction in how this state structures its finances,” Murray said.

Representing northern Maine, Stewart said in late November that his focus was making sure people didn’t “freeze to death.” In a statement, Stewart said the hearing had done “exactly what it was intended” to do, highlighting funding issues in crucial programs.

“Our caucus will be holding the administration’s feet to the fire in the upcoming budget process to ensure that we actually are prioritizing these people,” Stewart said.