Saturday November 10, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- The members of Vermont's congressional delegation were happy about the results of Tuesday's election, but all three admitted there's a lot of hard work to be done, both in the lame-duck Congress set to reconvene next week and in its 113th version that begins in January.

Rep. Peter Welch said the first item on the agenda next week is dealing with the so-called "fiscal cliff," but he was doubtful any long-term solution will be found before the end of the year.

"I'm skeptical that we can do in two months what has eluded us for two years," he said.

The fiscal cliff is tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to go into effect in January.

The spending cuts were a result of the debt ceiling stalemate in August 2011. The bipartisan Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction was tasked with coming up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, but because it couldn't come up with a plan, an automatic cut in the amount of $110 billion -- sequestration -- is scheduled to go into effect on Jan 2, half from domestic spending and half from defense.

The Congressional Budget Office has concluded that if nothing is done to address the tax hike and spending cuts, the United States could find itself back into a recession. And if nothing is done about the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and Pres. Barack Obama's 2-percent payroll tax cut, 80 percent of Americans will see a tax increase in 2013.

What is needed, said Welch, is a balanced agreement including increased tax revenues from those who can afford it and cuts from certain programs that don't fall on the middle class and the needy.

A short-term solution to avert going over the fiscal cliff might be hammered out before January, he said, but it has to be balanced and "real" and can't be temporary relief as a substitute for serious decision making.

"America needs a debt deal that squeezes the Pentagon and makes reforms on how we deliver our health care," said Welch. "Will it happen? I doubt it."

However, Congress does have a Plan B and a Plan C, he said.

It could just ignore the Jan. 1 deadline "and say we were kidding," said Welch, or Congress could let the cuts and tax hikes go into effect but then when the new Congress takes over it could implement retroactive policies.

"If nothing happens, sequestration goes into effect and Congress will come under enormous pressure," he said, adding he didn't expect much action of the members of the lame-duck Congress, many of whom he said have "been fighting for failure for two years."

When the 113th Congress convenes, said Welch, it needs to focus on strengthening the middle class, job creation and finding a balanced approach to address the nation's debt and deficit.

"That would include job creating investments in infrastructure, broadband, education and scientific research," he said.

Despite the challenges facing the next Congress, Welch said he was heartened by the election.

"American people withstood a barrage of negative and nasty campaigning and made the choice for the president, whose focus is on the middle class. Whatever criticisms you might have about President Obama, he has a core message that our economy depends on strengthening and expanding the middle class."

Bernie Sanders, who was re-elected to the Senate, said he was very thankful and grateful to the people of Vermont for giving him a second term.

"My pledge is to work as hard as I can representing Vermont," he said.

Sanders, who spent 16 years in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 2006, is now the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.

Sanders said if sequestration is not stopped by the lame-duck Congress, it will result in cuts to important programs for working families.

Since Tuesday night, Sanders said he has been working the phones, contacting his colleagues and getting ready for next week.

"What I am doing is working hard to do deficit reduction in a way that is fair," he said. "That means that we fully understand that in America today we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on Earth. While the middle class is disappearing, the wealthy and the large corporations are doing extremely well."

As he has said repeatedly over the past few years, "The top 2 percent are going to have to play a significant role in deficit reduction."

Unfortunately, said Sanders, "You have virtually all the Republicans and a few Democrats who want to do deficit reduction by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education and other important programs while at the same time maintaining huge tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. Needless to say, that is absurd and I'm going to do everything I can to protect those programs."

To overcome what Sanders called the "unprecedented obstructionism" of the Republicans, the Senate needs to look at changing some of its procedures, such as the filibuster and anonymous holds on legislation.

The filibuster requires at least 60 votes to end debate on legislation, and because Democrats have had less than 60 votes, Republicans have effectively been able to bring the Senate to a standstill, he said.

When Lyndon B. Johnson was majority leader of the U.S. Senate in the late 1950s, he dealt with one filibuster, said Sanders, but Republicans have used the filibuster 370 times while Sen. Harry Reid has been majority leader.

"The minority can not be allowed to run the U.S.government," said Sanders.

But he and a handful of new senators -- Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Heidi Heitkamp, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy -- hope to help Reid muster the 51 votes necessary to reform the filibuster.

On the first day of the 113rd Congress, Reid has a few short hours to establish the Senate's rules for the upcoming session, said Sanders, and that's when he hopes the Republican stranglehold on the legislative process will be broken.

"Whether the issue is women's rights, health care for all or global warming, you can't move forward if you need 60 votes to pass every piece of legislation or every amendment," he said.

Patrick Leahy, who has served as a senator since 1975, is the second most senior member and the second longest-serving Democrat of the Senate. He was re-elected in 2010, and though his name wasn't on the ballot this time around, he said he was extremely happy with the results of Tuesday's vote.

"The fact that the president had support in a lot of the states where Republicans thought he wouldn't, and came very close in some of those states, I think it gives him a chance to do a number of things," said Leahy.

What was also encouraging to him, said Leahy, was John Boehner's statement that the Affordable Care Act was "the law of the land."

Boehner, a Republican, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

"If there are some areas of the act that need to be fixed, I expect we can get enough Republicans and Democrats to fix it," said Leahy.

For many in the 112th Congress, it was an "all-or-nothing" session, where "nothing gets done," said Leahy. But that attitude led to the GOP losing seats in the Senate.

"If there is a message out there, Americans would like to see Congress and the president working together," said Leahy.

Leahy would like to see two bills that have been languishing in the House get passed now that the election is over.

"We passed the Violence Against Woman Act overwhelmingly in the Senate with bipartisan support," he said. "But the Tea Party Republicans have held it up in the House."

Though the House GOP passed its own version of the act, it was stripped of language that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and provisions that would have helped to protect illegal immigrants who were victims of abuse.

The two acts have yet to be reconciled.

Leahy believes that now that the election is over, there is a chance the Senate version could be passed by the House.

Leahy would also like to see the stalled farm bill get passed, a bill that Rep. Welch has been working hard to no avail to get through the House of Representatives.

It includes help for dairy farmers in Vermont, drought relief for farmers in the Midwest and food stamp funding, a well-worn hobbyhorse of the Tea Party.

The farm bill was passed with a bipartisan supermajority in the Senate but House Republicans have refused to allow it on the floor for a vote.

"I think the Speaker knows an awful lot of his members would like to get this done," said Leahy. "Nobody said we get to have 100 percent of what we want, but you can't let the perfect get in the way of the good. Right now we have nothing."

Along with filibuster reform, Leahy would like to see the elimination of anonymous holds, in which one or more senators can prevent a motion reaching a vote on the Senate floor. If the senator privately notifies party leadership that he or she would like to place a hold on legislation, the name of that senator remains hidden.

"Filibusters and anonymous holds allow a lot of people to get away with doing nothing," said Leahy.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.