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Sen. Patrick Leahy
Thursday January 3, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- In the political chaos that surrounded last-minute passage of the so-called "fiscal cliff" legislation, members of Vermont's delegation found some reasons for optimism.

Chief among them was the fact that any bill was approved in a gridlocked, contentious Congress.

"We can make great progress if we're willing to put reasonable bills on the floor that draw support from both sides," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.

Vermont's sole member of the House credited Republican House Speaker John Boehner for bringing the bill to a vote.

"It was his decision. It was a brave decision," Welch said. "And it was the right decision."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy also lauded the bipartisan vote that averted automatic tax hikes and deep spending cuts that had come to be labeled a "fiscal cliff" due to their expected impact on the economy.

"I hope this is a sign that Republican leaders may begin allowing members to vote on other key issues such as Hurricane Sandy relief and a five-year farm bill," Leahy said.

At the same time, though, Leahy -- who signed the bill in his new role as Senate president pro tem -- decried the prolonged fiscal-cliff debate's "needless uncertainty" that he attributes to "a made-in-Congress" crisis imposed on everyone by factional obstructionism in the House.

"Uncertainty is corrosive throughout the economy," Leahy said. "Farmers need to plan not just for the next month but for the next year. Uncertainty affects doctors and their Medicare patients, families who need to know if they can count on continuation of the education tax credit, and businesses contemplating expansion. Prolonged uncertainty on these basic questions hurts everyone."

Vermont's senior senator joined Welch and Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in saying the legislation was not ideal but was necessary to end that uncertainty -- at least for now.

"The ‘fiscal cliff' agreement was not a ‘good' piece of legislation, but not passing the bill would have been much worse," Sanders said.

Sanders, who won a second term in November, returned to a familiar campaign theme -- preservation of Social Security. He said the cliff-averting bill did not alter the method by which that program's cost-of-living adjustments are calculated "despite an 11th-hour bid by Senate Republicans" to do so.

"Social Security has not contributed a nickel to the deficit, has a $2.7 trillion surplus and can pay all benefits owed to every eligible American for the next 21 years," Sanders said. "At a time when so many Americans are hurting, it makes no sense to balance the budget on the backs of seniors and the disabled."

Sanders also was happy that the bill extended a tax credit that benefits wind-power developers.

"This is a win-win for our economy and our environment," Sanders said.

For Welch, the bill's highlight was approval of new revenue sources by raising taxes on the wealthy -- though the income thresholds for those tax hikes are significantly higher than those initially proposed by Democrats.

The point, Welch said, is that a majority of lawmakers rejected the absolute prohibition on all tax increases espoused by conservative activist Grover Norquist.

"We broke the iron grip of Grover Norquist on the Republican tax orthodoxy," Welch said, adding that "we saw this as the best opportunity to get a significant revenue contribution."

Leahy said the fiscal-cliff bill "also includes a dairy-cliff fix crucial to Vermont dairy farmers" and extends the farm bill through the end of September.

The senator's office said the legislation continues the MILC safety-net program "including crucial ‘feed-cost-adjuster' formulas insisted on by Leahy that are vital in helping dairy farmers cope with high feed and production costs that have been worsened by drought."

Leahy said he will continue to advocate for a new Dairy Security Act, which was in a farm bill approved last year by the Senate. The House did not act on the measure.

"The new Senate should take up the farm bill that was passed last year in a strong bipartisan vote," Leahy said. "But most importantly, House leaders need to allow a farm bill to be debated and brought to a vote."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.