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Vt.'s Congressional delegation clashes over strategy to resolve infrastructure impasse

A collage shows a portrait of Sen. Patrick Leahy in a suit and tie on the left, a photo of the Capitol building lit up in the evening in the middle, and a portrait of Sen. Bernie Sanders on the far right.
Leahy: Alex Wong / Capitol and Sanders: J. Scott Applewhite
The Associated Press
Sen. Patrick Leahy, left, has been at odds with his fellow Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the best way for Democrats to lift the country's debt limit and find a way to pass President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, including two major infrastructure bills.

Something quite unusual happened in Washington last week: Vermont's Congressional delegation — Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Peter Welch — had a major disagreement over the best strategy for how to pass two important infrastructure bills.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VPR’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about the infrastructure impasse in Washington. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Well, Bob, first, briefly remind us what’s in the two different infrastructure bills that are being considered in Washington?

First, there's that $1.2 trillion bill, the so-called “physical infrastructure” bill that has money for roads and bridges, and an expansion of broadband services. The Senate has already passed this bill on a bipartisan basis, and it awaits action in the house.

Then there's the so-called “human infrastructure” or “social infrastructure” bill. It allocates $3.5 trillion for child care, paid family leave, affordable housing, free community college tuition, climate change and an expansion of Medicare. Now, the democrats need all 50 of their [Senate] members to pass this bill, because all 50 Republicans say they're going to oppose it. And the problem for the Democrats is that two of their members — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — say that the proposed $3.5 trillion price tag is much too large, and they won't support it at this time.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Bernie Embarks On Midwest Tour To Drum Up Grassroots (And GOP) Support For Biden's 'Human Infrastructure' Bill

Well, late last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to bring that “physical infrastructure” bill up for a vote. And, in a really unusual move, Sen. Bernie Sanders then wrote a letter to the House Progressive Caucus — roughly 100 members — and he urged them to vote against the bill. Why is that?

Let's also remember that Sanders is the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, so this was a letter coming from leadership in the Senate.

Sanders did that because he wants to use the smaller infrastructure bill as leverage to persuade Sens. Manchin and Sinema to support the larger plan. And he put it this way:

“There is a strong feeling on the part of many of us that if you just pass the infrastructure bill — which is a good bill, I voted for it — then we will not get to the bill that working families really want. The media thinks this is the Red Sox playing the Yankees. It is not. This is a long and complicated process, which is dealing with the most consequential piece of legislation, probably, since the New Deal in the Great Depression. It's a big deal.”
– Sen. Bernie Sanders

About half of the House Progressive Caucus agreed with Sanders. They held their ground and that forced Speaker Pelosi to delay a vote on this issue.

Well, Sen. Sanders there talking about Red Sox/Yankees rivalries, saying this is actually more important — he’s right about that — anyway, Sen. Sanders says these two bills should be linked together. Either they both pass, or they both fail.

But that's a big bet. Now, Congressman Peter Welch is a member of the House Progressive Caucus. Did he agree with Sanders’ strategy on this?

It's very interesting, Mitch. Welch did not agree at all. He basically rejects this “leverage” argument that Sanders is making.

Welch is worried that if the Democrats don't pass that smaller “physical infrastructure” bill right now, it might never pass.

“There's absolutely that risk, and that's what I'm extremely mindful of. And I think if we can make progress on an issue, let's make that progress. That's my inclination. And I think success breeds success.”
– Rep. Peter Welch

Welch says the worst possible outcome is that the Democrats fail to pass either bill, setting the stage for the Republicans to regain majorities in both the House and Senate next year.

Okay, so there's Rep. Welch, at loggerheads with Sen. Sanders on this issue.

Sen. Patrick Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the President of the Senate. What are his thoughts on the issue?

Mitch, I think it's fair to say that Sen. Leahy sides with Welch on this strategy issue, and I say that because I asked the Senator last week what he thought of the members of the House Progressive Caucus, who were insisting that the fate of these two bills be linked together.

“People were saying, ‘If I don't get every single thing I want, I'm gonna have to be against it.’ I think that's immature and irresponsible.”
– Sen. Patrick Leahy

Leahy, also in a strong leadership position, says he's hopeful that a final compromise can be worked out.

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Well. How is this disagreement being viewed outside of Washington's beltway?

I had a chance to talk with Linda Fowler, a professor of government emerita at Dartmouth College. She thinks Sen. Sanders is really digging in on this issue because that larger bill represents the priorities that he has spent a lifetime fighting for.

“He’s sort of seeing his legislative handiwork, which is kind of the culmination of his political career, being jeopardized. It’s very frustrating for [Sanders].”
– Linda Fowler, Professor emerita at Dartmouth College

Prof. Fowler also told me that she thinks the chances are pretty good that the democrats will eventually vote on a compromise plan and pass both bills.

“And frankly, if they got half of the [amount in the] bills for ‘human [infrastructure],’ that would be a huge achievement. It would certainly not be a failure, because we've been studied on domestic policy for really more than a decade.”
– Linda Fowler, Professor emerita at Dartmouth College

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Bob, when do you think we'll know which side had the winning strategy here?

Mitch, that is the great unknown at this time.

I think the Democrats would like to resolve these issues in the next four to six weeks. They've got to do it by Thanksgiving. So we should know pretty soon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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."
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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