MONTPELIER — Vermont’s congressional delegation embraced a bipartisan deal brokered Wednesday in the U.S. Senate that reopens the federal government and avoids a default while noting the damage already caused by the two-week impasse in Washington.
Congress was churning toward votes Wednesday night in both the House and Senate to end the stalemate and send legislation to the desk of President Barack Obama.
The state’s three-member congressional delegation, meanwhile, expressed relief that lawmakers were on track to reopen the federal government following a 16-day shutdown and avoid defaulting on the country’s debts.
Still, the deal, which would fund the government through Jan. 15 and increase the debt limit through Feb. 7, is no reason to celebrate, said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
“This whole spectacle was a self-manufactured crisis,” he said in a phone interview. “We never should have put the country through the threat of a default or the pain of a shutdown. There’s no bragging to be done here. It’s about time we got back to doing our business.”
Welch said the shutdown — and the brinksmanship over the debt ceiling — was always a futile quest “by the tea party wing of the House Republicans.” Their stated intent, to repeal the health care bill, was doomed, he said.
“It was a quixotic agenda because they weren’t going to undo what was passed by the House and Senate, signed by the president and approved by the Supreme Court and then affirmed by the American people in the last presidential election,” Welch said.
The path to ending the standoff in Congress appeared to be cleared Wednesday afternoon when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the most ardent supporters of the shutdown, indicated he would not use Senate rules to slow down passage of the agreement.
“The brave Texan, Sen. Cruz, has folded like a cheap suit,” Welch said.
In the end, tea party Republicans achieved none of their stated goals regarding the Affordable Care Act, namely defunding or delaying the sweeping health care reform law. A provision is included in Wednesday’s deal — the administration must show it can verify the incomes of people applying for subsidies under ACA.
The Senate deal “is positive and important,” Welch said, because it establishes Obamacare as the law of the land. Congress “can now focus on the implementation challenges that the law has experienced in its first few weeks,” he said.
“And those are real, but we’ll be working to make this work, to improve it, to address real problems,” Welch said. “We won’t be in a fight about repealing it.”
The deal also discredits the tactics employed by some Republicans in their attempt to force concessions from the president and Democrats, he said.
“The president, by holding firm on paying our bills, has repudiated as a legitimate tactic in Congress, threatening default on our obligations as a way to get your point of view to succeed,” Welch said. “I think it will be a long, long time before another group of members in Congress tries to use that hostage-taking approach.”
The deal, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said in a telephone interview, prevents — at least temporarily — the worst-case scenario that Congress and the country had been facing.
“What I obviously like is the government is going to reopen and right-wing extremists are not going to cause a default which would bring about an international financial crisis,” Sanders said. “The fact that we may not be driving the world into a major recession or depression I think is of some significance.”
But the short-term extensions are likely to lead to another showdown early next year, according to Sanders. He had hoped for a longer-term deal.
“It means that there’s going to be a lot of posturing and everything else. And maybe on Jan. 15 the government is going to shut down again,” he said. “It’s really pretty pathetic.”
Sanders said he believes Republicans associated with the tea party are likely to try and extract concessions from Obama and Democrats again by holding up legislation to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.
“There are some folks in the tea party that think they’ve won a wonderful victory,” he said. “They have shut down government and that, for them, is something they are very, very happy about. Some of them do not believe ... that default would have a significant impact on the economy.”
Calling out Boehner
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a telephone interview Wednesday that Republican House Speaker John Boehner will be responsible if the government is again brought to a grinding halt early next year.
“You cannot run the most powerful nation on Earth that way,” he said. “If we do, then it’s an irresponsible lack of leadership in the House of Representatives. At some point the speaker has got to stand up and say to these radical tea party Republicans that you’re not reflecting the values of Republicans and especially not reflecting the values of the American people.”
Welch is expecting Boehner to continue to wrangle with the tea party faction in the House, but more moderate Republicans and Democrats can avoid future roadblocks, he said.
“There’s a faction of never-say-die folks in the House of Representatives who are in highly gerrymandered districts,” Welch said. “Those guys, it’s like they’re at the Alamo. They’re going to keep fighting to try and shoot their way out. He’s got a continuing challenge.”
The country’s slow trek toward what most economists have said would be economic calamity should help highlight how reckless some lawmakers associated with the tea party have become, Sanders said.
“I think if there’s any silver lining in this whole thing it’s that maybe people have seen how extreme the right-wing extremist tea party people are and their willingness to hijack and hold hostage the entire government,” Sanders said. “I think a whole lot of people are now seeing that who had not previously seen that.”
Black eye for U.S.
Despite Wednesday’s positive news, the Vermont delegation said lasting harm has already occurred as a result of the shutdown and debt ceiling threat.
“These tea-party radicals have hurt the reputation of the United States,” Leahy said. “We’ve allowed China to go to Asia and to world markets and say, ‘Well you know, you’d be a lot safer relying on China than the United States.’”
Americans have also been harmed by the suspension of medical trials, farm programs and food inspections, Leahy said. “By tomorrow, we would have seen federal courts closing down,” he said.
The country has suffered a black eye in the world community, according to Sanders.
“How can you proclaim to be the leading power in the world, the country that others are supposed to look up to, when you can’t even keep your government open and you can’t pay your bills?” he said. “The United States’ position in the world has been severely damaged by this.”
Relief in Vermont
State officials were breathing a sigh or relief Wednesday, too. Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said the state had held off making major decisions on how to fund some federally backed programs had the shutdown continued.
“It will allow us not to have to make some difficult decisions that we would have had to otherwise make in the coming days,” he said of the deal in Congress.
The state was also facing a daunting challenge — how to continue paying more than 5,000 state employees at least partially funded by the federal government, including 1,000 who are either fully funded or more than 90 percent funded by federal dollars.
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