Vermont's first Congresswoman Becca Balint aims to bridge partisan divide in Washington
In January, Becca Balint will be sworn in as Vermont’s new member of the U.S. House. It marks the first time that a woman has ever been elected to Congress from Vermont.
It’s a major transition going from being Senate President Pro Tem at the Vermont Statehouse to dealing with all of the political forces in the nation’s capital.
Recently, Vermont Public’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel had a chance to talk to Balint about how she’s preparing to deal with some of these challenges.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Bob Kinzel about Balint’s transition to Washington. Their conversation below is edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So let's start looking at this transition period, which included several weeks of orientation in Washington D.C. Does Becca Balint have some major priorities as she starts her career in Congress?
Bob Kinzel: Mitch, she really does. And it's a big one, it's an effort to change what she calls the current "toxic political culture" in Washington. And Balint says it'll be virtually impossible to pass any significant bills until this happens. So it needs to be the top priority in the new session.
And Mitch, as Balint starts her first year in the U.S. House, she told me that she's optimistic that this culture change can happen. But it will require a lot of courage and persistence by many new members. She also told me that she feels her legislative experience in Vermont has prepared her well for her new role in Congress.
"I actually feel like I have a leg up on some of my colleagues coming in," Balint said. "All of us in this freshman class coming in, who have served in state legislatures, have a much better sense of how you actually work with a committee to get a bill out of committee and onto the floor. And so it is a lot of information. But I keep telling folks, it's kind of like the orientation we do in Montpelier, but on steroids."
Optimism is one thing, Bob, but there was a fascinating incident, as I understand it, at one of the orientation breakfasts that reflected the continued partisan atmosphere in Congress, even among the new members. What can you tell us about that?
This is an amazing story. Balint told me this story because she thinks it really symbolizes the current partisan nature of Congress. So during orientation, members of both parties had meals together, although they often sat with people from their own party. Now, she saw a group of new Republicans having breakfast and she decided to join them. They were discussing the role that the Republican National Committee played in their elections, when Balint told the group, she was a Democrat, and that she suspected that the role of the DNC and the RNC were very similar.
"And there was this very awkward pause," she said. "And they all looked at me. And I said, 'I knew that you were probably Republicans when I sat here. That's why I sat here.' I said, 'If we can't have a muffin and a coffee together, then we're doomed.'"
And Mitch, despite the initial awkwardness, Balint told me that later in the week, several of these Republicans actually sought her out to express their support for what she was trying to do. So she felt very good about that.
"But I'm gonna continue to seek out those people and to stop the demonization of each other, it has to stop. I have got allies here who are thinking about it the same way, which is when we lose our dignity in the way that we talk about each other, we're not going to be able to take care of the people back home the way that we want to."Congresswoman-elect Becca Balint
Now, for all the talk of developing a bipartisan atmosphere in Congress, Balint does draw the line for one very specific group of Republicans.
"We have to hold people accountable, who were part of the insurrection, continuing to hold those people accountable, who essentially tried to stage a coup, or who still deny that Biden is the, you know, the legitimate president," Balint said.
And Mitch, this could pose a challenge for her, because there are dozens of GOP House members who think the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Trump.
And as you mentioned, Balint says she is optimistic that new members can start to change this partisan culture in Washington. Seems like a pretty large task, though, wouldn't you say?
Absolutely. I think it's an enormous job and one that could take years and years to accomplish.
And Bob, Balint wasted no time getting involved in a leadership position in Congress. What was that leadership position?
That was really interesting, Mitch. She joined the House Progressive Caucus. It's a group that has 103 members. Senator-elect Peter Welch is also a member of the Progressive Caucus.
Now Balint was elected by caucus leaders to be their liaison to the new members of the group, and that's going to give her an important voice in expressing their priorities. It also provides a way for her to establish strong relationships with all of the new members and with the leaders of the caucus.
Now, Mitch, one of the biggest challenges facing new members is finding a place to live in Washington. And I'm reminded that when former Congressman and Sen. Jim Jeffords first went to Washington, he found it extremely difficult to find a place to live that he could afford. So he decided to live in a Winnebago for a while.
Now Balint won't be taking that route. She told me she's very pleased she has been able to find a place within walking distance of the Capitol. So that challenge has been overcome, at least in the short-term.
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