Vermont delegation backs Harvey, budget and debt ceiling deal

WASHINGTON — All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation backed a budget package that will delay key fiscal votes for three months and fund recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey.

The continuing resolution directs $15 billion to assist victims of Hurrican Harvey and postpones votes on the nation’s debt limit, annual budget and a troubled flood insurance program.

Crossing party lines, President Donald Trump struck a deal on Wednesday with House and Senate Democrats to increase the debt limit and finance the government through early December. The federal budget was originally set to expire on September 30.

Vermont leaders have been bracing for the impact of cuts to federal funding for states. The continuing resolution delays decisions lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott will face, should Congress decide to follow through with promises Trump has made to drastically cut environmental and human services programs. Vermont legislative leaders say once the continuing resolution is signed by the president, they will officially cancel a special session tentatively scheduled for October.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., was among the 316 members of the House to vote in favor of the resolution in the House Friday morning, sending the resolution to President Donald Trump’s desk. Ninety members — all Republicans — voted against it.

The Senate passed the resolution Thursday afternoon with 80 in favor and 17 opposed.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., cast votes for the resolution.

The package was the result of a rare bipartisan agreement between Trump and congressional Democratic leaders.

As Congress returned this week from the August recess, the debt ceiling and impending expiration of the current federal budget were expected to be at the center of contentious political debates.

But with two Gulf Coast states reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and another storm, Irma, bearing down on Florida, priorities changed. Congress rushed the package through both chambers in the first week after the August recess.

In remarks before the vote in the Senate, Leahy spoke about efforts to get federal disaster relief funding after Tropical Storm Irene swept through Vermont and other northeastern states six years ago.

“Republicans and Democrats in the Senate stood by my side in 2011 and the following years to help Vermont rebuild after Irene,” Leahy said. “I will stand in support of Texans and Louisianans now, and Floridians, if they need it.”

Leahy said the resolution will provide “much-needed” assistance, in addition to funding the government at current spending levels through December 8.

“It’s a responsible approach to addressing the needs of our nation,” he said.

The agreement will also postpone the expiration of the National Flood Insurance Program, which previously was due to be reauthorized at the end of September.

According to Ned Swanberg, Central Vermont Floodplain Manager at the Department of Environmental Conservation, 89 percent of communities in Vermont participate in the program.

The resolution also offers Vermont officials temporary financial stability, quelling fears that drastic federal funding cuts would come at the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said Legislature’s October session will be canceled as soon as Trump makes the resolution official.

“When the president signs that, I’ll let the Senate officially know,” Ashe said.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, said with the federal budget level-funded under the resolution, “there’s nothing to come back for” in October.

The potential for significant federal cuts has been put off for now under the agreement. She said she’s pleased with how the Legislature has managed the “uncertainty” under the Trump administration.

“There’s still quite a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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