VTDigger: Delegation: Life in Trump's Washington Demands New Tactics, Goals
From President Donald Trump’s inauguration to the Women’s March, the narrowly defeated Obamacare repeal to the narrowly passed tax reform bill, the Russian election interference probe to #MeToo — 2017 was a year of high drama in Washington.
Vermont’s delegation, all three of whom are in the minority in Congress, sat down with VTDigger to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of the year, finding themselves in new roles, and coming to terms with what they see as an unprecedented political situation in Washington.
Leahy: “In many ways the most frustrating year”
Sen. Patrick Leahy carries himself through the Capitol with a spirit of conviviality at odds with the deep political divisions in Washington.
The Democrat often will give a nod to a “good friend” across the aisle in remarks in committees. On the early December evening the Republican tax plan was to come up for a vote, Leahy joked with photographers and reporters outside the chamber, turning his camera on them.
During one summer floor vote, as senators milled about, Leahy passed out envelopes to members from both political parties. He later said the envelopes contained thank-you notes.
However, Leahy said 2017 stood out in his four-decade career in the Senate. He harbors deep concerns about the integrity of Congress and the courts, he said during a December interview.
“It’s in many ways the most frustrating year that I’ve been here,” Leahy said. “Every president I’ve known has cared about the presidency, not just getting elected to it, but cared about it.”
However, he pointed to his unusual position in the Senate. Leahy, currently the country’s longest-serving senator, is the vice chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, a vantage point that affords him access to virtually every corner of federal government.
“I’ve never seen a year where I’ve felt more empowered because of my seniority and where I am in the Senate,” he said.
The results of the 2016 election were “in some ways a shattering blow at first” to the Democratic Party, Leahy said.
“I think we came to a quick realization you still have parts of the Congress that worked,” he said. “You can’t just be an automatic no or an automatic yes. And you find areas where you can work together.”
He mentioned initiatives that he pursued with bipartisan collaboration as some of his foremost successes of the year — chief among them negotiating a fiscal package in the spring that averted a government shutdown.
Leahy is wary of partisan division within Congress. The development of major pieces of legislation behind closed doors, then their passage along strict party lines — as in the case of the tax bill — concern him.
“You can win some things in the short term with that. Long term you lose the respect of the people and everything starts breaking down,” he said.
He is concerned that attacks from Trump on the judiciary, and division in Congress, erode the regard citizens should have for the government.
“At some point, everybody loses respect of the government entirely,” he said. “It’s almost a cliche, but the glue that shall hold us together is gone. And you can’t do that in a country as diverse as we are.”
A longtime member of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy said he is worried about the influence of lobbyists on putting forward candidates to fill judicial vacancies. He and others have raised concerns over the qualifications of many nominees the Trump administration has put forward.
Leahy, the former chair, and the current Judiciary chair, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have disagreed over how to deal with a procedure through which senators can raise objections to a nominee for a vacancy in their jurisdiction.
Leahy regarded these blue slips from senators as effectively blocking a nominee from moving forward. Grassley has allowed nominees to proceed without endorsements from home-state senators — which Leahy said is not what he expected.
“He is not following the procedure that I did with the Republicans and that I understood he would do with us,” he said.
Sanders: “A very difficult year”
Sen. Bernie Sanders moves about the Capitol with celebrity-like clout. His appearances at Capitol lawn rallies and press conferences draw cheers from crowds and stares from passers-by. Hill visitors occasionally snag him in hallways to ask for selfies.
The independent — who caucuses with the Democrats and ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 — was named ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, the panel that oversees the federal spending blueprint.
Vermont’s 76-year-old junior senator shows no signs of slowing down. He filled some weekends and congressional breaks with multistate political rally tours or on trips to areas of high national interest, like Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
And he can speed-walk through a gaggle of loitering journalists at a clip that will leave even a fit reporter five decades his junior winded while trying to keep up.
In an interview last week, Sanders said his role in the Senate had changed since his White House bid.
“When you receive 13 million votes in a presidential primary process and when you become part of the Democratic leadership, by definition your role changes,” said Sanders, who chairs the outreach committee of the party.
His transformed role within the caucus was aptly summarized when in September he unveiled his “Medicare for all” bill flanked by many of the Democratic senators most likely to make a run for the White House in 2020, to tides of cheers in a rally-like setting in the largest committee hearing room in the Senate offices.
Sanders has introduced legislation to create a universal health care system multiple times throughout his service in Congress, most recently in 2013. That year he had zero co-sponsors.
This year he had 16.
Sanders said he has a long list of initiatives he’d like to spend time on, from improving infrastructure to making public higher education institutions tuition-free.
“Needless to say I would much prefer to be fighting for the passage of a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system guaranteeing health care to all people, but we don’t have the votes to do that right now,” he said.
Much of his efforts now are directed at countering Trump’s “reactionary” agenda and “trying to prevent terrible things from happening.”
“It’s been a very difficult year,” he said.
Sanders said he has been happy with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s leadership of the Democratic caucus. In two of the biggest political battles of the year — repealing Obamacare and reforming the federal tax code — not a single caucus member broke ranks, Sanders noted. “And that has a lot to do with Schumer’s leadership,” he said.
From his perch within party leadership, Sanders has been focused on rallying public support against the GOP agenda, concentrating most recently on the tax bill.
Sanders said he believes Democrats have had some victories. The effort to repeal Obamacare failed in the Senate. He also pointed to the special election for a vacant Senate seat from Alabama, which was won by Democrat Doug Jones, and Democratic victories across the country on Election Day in November in state and local races.
“What you are beginning to see is the start of what I call the political revolution,” he said.
Welch: “Everything is upside down with this president”
Vermont’s lone representative to the U.S. House went to the White House in March for a meeting with the president, optimistic that bipartisan cooperation was possible on one of his top priorities: prescription drug pricing.
After all, a promise to reduce high medication costs was a recurring theme at Trump’s political rallies during the 2016 campaign.
Rep. Peter Welch went with Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, a fellow Democrat and a partner in a bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
By Welch’s account, the meeting went well. Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was there. The president seemed receptive.
But a key figure present at Welch’s policy meetings with previous commanders in chief was absent. There were no staffers there — the aides Welch said are key to moving forward with a proposal.
“You’re in a meeting and there’s no indication that there’s a serious desire to do any of the follow-up work that’s essential to be successful,” Welch said.
The White House meeting was just one of many ways he saw the norms of Washington shift this year.
“This is my 11th year in Congress, and the nature of my job is entirely different than it’s been for the first 10 years,” Welch said.
Political division is not new, he said. But in previous years, “the focus was on policy battles.”
One year into the new political landscape, Welch feels his job is about serving as a conduit between Washington and Vermont, where he has found many constituents deeply concerned about the leadership of the country.
“It’s not how I voted on this or that bill, but it had to do with what I think is a profound change in people’s attitudes and their confidence in whether the basic guardrails of democracy are intact, and they feel that they’re not,” Welch said.
“And they’re right to feel that, because they’re not,” he said.
An illustrative moment for Welch came in March when the Republican Obamacare repeal plan first came before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on which Welch sits.
“The doors were figuratively locked and the bill, written in secret, was now passed around to the members of the committee,” he said.
After a marathon 27-hour session, the committee passed the bill out.
“It was for me kind of a low day about how Congress was profoundly broken, where we couldn’t even have an open hearing,” he said.
Despite the bitter partisan divide, Welch still counts some legislative accomplishments, like advancing a bill he sponsored with bipartisan support on improving rural phone call quality.
But much of his goal, he said, is resisting elements of Trump’s agenda that are in diametric opposition to Democrats’ position on everything from climate change to voters’ rights to income inequality.
“A lot of the role here is playing defense against the unwinding of progress that has been made in this country,” he said.
“Everything is upside down with this president,” he said.
Welch said the Democratic Party is “in flux.” He sees a need for reckoning with the perception among some voters that the party represents the interests of the two coasts, and that its message does not resonate with workers across the country.
There is a debate within the party about how to approach the new landscape in D.C.
“Are we an anti-Trump party or do we have our own agenda?” he said. “And I believe very strongly that we’ve got to be more than an anti-Trump party.”
As to House Democratic leadership, Welch praised Nancy Pelosi as “effective, energetic and a great negotiator.”
Asked if he was satisfied by leadership in the chamber, he hinted at an appetite for change.
“We’ll see,” Welch said. “Time is marching on, and you know our leadership has been here for a long time. That will be resolved internally, but it’s definitely an active discussion.”