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Debt ceiling measure splits Vermont delegation

August 2, 2011

NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — An eleventh-hour deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling that was signed into law Tuesday has split Vermont’s three-man congressional delegation.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, while noting the bipartisan plan was not ideal, cast his vote in favor of the compromise that raises the debt ceiling and trims more than $2 trillion in deficits over the next decade. He was among 73 other members of the Senate to vote in favor of the plan that Congress wrangled over for months to complete.

Vermont’s junior senator, Bernie Sanders, called the agreement “extremely unfair,” and voted against it. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, also voted against the measure.

Sanders, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, was a vocal opponents of the plan that began to take shape in earnest over the weekend. His opposition was well known after appearances on MSNBC.

“I believe that Vermonters and people across the country are extremely dismayed that all of the burden for deficit reduction will fall on the backs of working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor,” Sanders said following Tuesday’s vote. “This extremely unfair agreement does not ask the wealthiest people in this country, most of whom are doing extremely well, or large profitable corporations to contribute one penny. This is not only immoral, it is
bad economic policy and will cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

The plan, signed into law by President Barack Obama Tuesday afternoon following the Senate vote, will likely impact programs utilized by many Vermonters, including low-income heating assistance, Head Start, Pell grants and health plans.

“All of us understand that the current deficit situation is unsustainable and that we need responsible action to address it. It is unconscionable, however, that this agreement would place the entire burden on working families and some of the most vulnerable people in our country,” Sanders said.

Welch led the charge for a so-called “clean” debt ceiling bill — one that was not attached to deficit reduction measures. That option never materialized, however. Instead, Welch said he pushed for a plan that would allow the country to avoid default while seeking “shared sacrifice” in trimming deficits.

Welch said he was optimistic of a “grand bargain” plan being discussed by Obama and GOP House Speaker John Boehner that would have adopted budget cuts, including defense, and some revenue increases. That, too, fell apart, however.

“In my view that was the way to go but the Republicans walked away from any plan that included revenues,” Welch said in a telephone interview.

Republican freshmen in the House were “willing to take the economy over the cliff” over the revenue issue, Welch said. As a result, he cast his vote against the final compromise legislation because it lacked additional revenues. It was already clear that there were enough votes for it to pass and avoid a first-ever default.

“My vote against this budget deal was in objection to paying that ransom,” Welch said. “If the choices were default versus bad economic plan, I would have voted to avoid default.”

Welch said many House Republicans voted in favor of a budget plan earlier this year crafted by Republican Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan that also would raise the deficit, and require lifting the debt ceiling. But most GOP House members still refused to lift the ceiling, Welch said, unless all of their demands were met.

“That’s not on the level and they were willing to disregard that their own actions required raising the debt ceiling,” he said.

The Vermont delegation typically agrees on most issues. But Leahy, however reluctantly, voted for the compromise.

“This is not a solution I would have preferred, but the compromise finally reached by the White House and congressional leaders puts common sense and the national interest above partisanship and ideology,” he said following Tuesday’s vote.

Lawmakers were forced to act on the best legislation possible, Leahy said.

“Our country was pushed to the brink of catastrophe. The choice at hand was not this bill or something better. The choice is between the only bipartisan practical solution to the debt ceiling crisis, or a devastating default on the nation’s debts for the first time in our history,” he said. “A default would send shock waves throughout our fragile economy. It would slap a credit rate tax on every household and every business in Vermont and across the country.”

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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