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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

GOP Leaders In Vermont Legislature Lay Out Agenda With Diminished Membership

Rep. Pattie McCoy sits in the Vermont House chamber, looking ahead with hands folded.
Oliver Parini
Rep. Pattie McCoy, seen here on the opening day of the 2019 Vermont Legislature, is the House Minority Leader this session. This is her first term as the House Republican leader, and there are 43 Vermont House seats held by Republicans this session.

Since the Civil War, there has never been a time when the Republican Party in Vermont has had so few members in both the House and the Senate. GOP leaders say this current situation has a profound impact on the role of the Republican caucuses at the Statehouse.

There was a time when there were very few Democrats in the Vermont Legislature. In fact, in a majority of sessions between 1860 and 1912, no Democrats were elected to the Vermont Senate. In most of the House sessions during that period, there were fewer than 25 Democrats serving in that chamber.

Cut to 2019, where this session there are 6 GOP senators in the 30-seat chamber and 43 Republican House seats.

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning, the Republican leader in the Vermont Senate, acknowledged that it's virtually impossible for his caucus to advance a bill that's viewed strictly as a Republican priority.

He said his best hope is try to moderate some of the bills that come to the Senate floor. For example, Benning said Republicans will work to make any paid family leave bill voluntary, not mandatory, for employees and employers.

More from VPR — Govs. Scott, Sununu Announce Joint Voluntary Paid Family Leave Plan For Vt. And N.H. [Jan. 16]

"It doesn't really matter what the given issue is, we have differences of opinion of many different things," Benning said. "But the bottom line is, at the end of the day, the other side has all the numbers — they can advance whatever legislation they want — so we will do our best to concentrate on trying to keep the legislation as balanced as possible."

Benning isn't overly concerned about the Democrats' supermajority. He said that's because unlike the U.S. Congress, there's usually good communication between Republicans and Democrats in the Vermont Senate.

"Doesn't matter what your viewpoint is or what party you're from, people are listening to each other," Benning said. "They recognize what the problems are and are doing their best to try to come to consensus to reach a point where you can provide a solution. I don't see that going on in Washington."

More from VPR — In Inaugural Address, Gov. Phil Scott Makes Case For 'Consensus And Compromise' [Jan 10]

Poultney Rep. Pattie McCoy is serving in her first term as House Republican leader, and she said her caucus can have its greatest impact when individual bills are considered in committee — before these issues are debated on the House floor.

"They need to speak up and talk in committee when a bill comes to them — you know, they take it off the wall for discussion," McCoy said. "I think they really need to engage and continue to be engaged. They can't just sit back and watch. I mean, they really need to question."

In the U.S. Congress, the majority party controls the leadership of every committee — but in the Vermont Legislature, that's not the case.

Coventry Rep. Mike Marcotte has been named as the head of the House commerce committee, and in the Senate, Benning was appointed as the chairman of the institutions committee. Several GOP members have also been appointed as the vice chairs of a number of committees in both chambers.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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