BARRE — This proved to be one of the more productive weeks U.S. Rep. Peter Welch has had in his 13 years in Congress. Michael Cohen played a big part.
Speaking to editors of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald on Friday afternoon, the Democratic congressman outlined the week’s big news and discussed the state of politics in Washington, D.C.
An energized Welch said, “It was a big week.”
He said with Democrats holding the majority in the House, there are often questions as to whether the focus is going to be on oversight of the Trump administration.
“We have a duty to do oversight,” he said. “But we really have a duty to do concrete legislation for the people.”
Both things happened this week.
The House passed what advocates call the most significant gun control measure in more than two decades on Wednesday when it approved the first of two bills aimed at broadening the federal background check system for firearms purchases.
The vote on the first bill, dubbed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, passed largely along party lines 240-190. Welch voted for it.
A second bill would extend the period federal authorities have to complete a background check before a gun sale can go through. Under current law, if a check isn’t finalized in three business days, the transaction can automatically proceed. Welch voted for that, as well.
“That was a significant victory, and it shows how things are changing,” he said.
House Democrats hope the swift passage of the companion bills will put pressure on the Senate to act. Welch seemed sure Senate leader Mitch McConnell would not let the legislation reach the Senate floor, however.
In addition this week, the House voted to overturn President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration, delivering a harsh rebuke to the president’s attempt to go around Congress to fund a border wall.
Every Democrat voted in favor, along with 13 Republicans. The Senate, which needs just four GOP votes to approve it and send it to the president’s desk for his first veto, will vote on the resolution in the coming weeks.
Welch called the repudiation one of “the most significant things I’ve done in Congress.”
“What’s so important about that is that (Trump’s) actions trample on the system of checks and balances,” Welch said of the message sent to the administration. “We wanted to do that as quickly as possible.”
Welch said that despite the five-week government shutdown that stalled services nationwide, these two steps showed the House — albeit divided — remains committed to legislating.
“It’s what needs to happen,” Welch said, pointing toward oncoming pushes toward campaign finance reform and reducing prescription drug prices.
Most of the headlines for the week, though, were taken up with the compelling testimony of Cohen, the president’s personal attorney who testified before the House Judiciary Committee, on which Welch sits.
Cohen gave a dark portrayal of the president, calling him a “con man,” “a cheat” and “a racist.”
Republican House members attacked Cohen as a witness; Democrats asked questions about the president’s conduct and actions over time. Cohen worked for Trump for more than 10 years, and allegedly was responsible for hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, among other actions.
“Over hours of testimony and attacks, I certainly learned a lot,” Welch said of the hearings. “But the thing I learned the most is that the Trump Cohen described … has real similarities to the Trump I have seen in the White House: The truth totally doesn’t matter; loyalty until it was inconvenient; a willingness to get what he wants in that moment.
“It’s alarming that’s what’s coming from the White House,” he said. “That’s concerning to me, but not surprising if you think about it.”
During the hearing Wednesday, Welch pressed Cohen on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and who knew what when.
“It’s a big concern,” Welch said. “We were facing a whole new threat (to our elections) and our democracy.”
Welch said he saw Cohen as a solid witness, because the things he said — and the exhibits that Cohen presented — corroborated his testimony.
“That was important to me,” he said. “He was recounting the facts … I find that credible. The corroboration was key.”
Welch was quick to make the distinction between actions that are inappropriate — bad business dealings, lying and unethical behavior — and the play of politics that surrounds imposing articles of impeachment.
“Impeachment is a political decision,” Welch said, stating that the pending report by special counsel Robert Mueller is the fulcrum on which the course changes. “High crimes and misdemeanors does not have a specific definition. … (That report) will be a distinguishing moment in the dealings (of Congress) as we learn more.”
Overall, Welch gave the week a high rating.
“I think it is my job now to defend the democratic traditions we have,” Welch said. “At the end of two years, we have to have a body of work that, on policy grounds, is good for people who voted for Trump or voted for (Hillary) Clinton. … We got that, and oversight, accomplished this week.”