Vermont politicians support bipartisan infrastructure bill, but some eye a bigger prize

Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy. File photos by Kit Norton and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A $1 trillion infrastructure package moved closer to becoming law Wednesday as the Senate voted 67-32 to advance the legislation toward formal debate and possible passage. Both Vermont senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and independent Bernie Sanders, voted in favor, as did 17 Republicans.

In an email statement, Leahy praised the outcome: “The Senate has shown that infrastructure is truly a bipartisan issue just as it always has been. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal makes a once-in-a-generation investment in America’s infrastructure that is long overdue.” 

The bill would plow about $550 billion in new federal money into roads and bridges, railroads and transit service, broadband, water and sewer plants, and making America more prepared for the effects of climate change.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott hailed the bill. Said his press secretary, Jason Maulucci, “The governor believes that the package is sorely needed to modernize our infrastructure, make us more resilient, create good-paying jobs, invest in our communities, combat climate change, among many other benefits. … The bipartisan package presents the opportunity for Congress to prove that it is still possible to work together in Washington.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are also pushing a more ambitious $3.5 trillion bill, tackling what U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont referred to as “human infrastructure,” through a process known as reconciliation. That’s a special legislative process that can quickly advance high-priority spending bills. In the Senate, reconciliation bills aren’t subject to filibuster, which gives Democrats the chance to pass legislation by a slim majority even without the support of Senate Republicans. The Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats; Vice President Kamala Harris can cast deciding votes when she’s presiding over the Senate.

While he voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Wednesday, Sanders kept his sights focused on reconciliation. 

“We have the chance here to deliver the most consequential piece of legislation for working families since the Great Depression,” Sanders said in an emailed statement, “and to help restore the American people’s faith in their government by proving that it works for them, not just the wealthy, the powerful, and their lobbyists.”

Welch echoed Sanders’ support for reconciliation. “We’ve gotta pass reconciliation,” Welch said. “It’s all about human infrastructure. It’s about child care, family leave, two years of community college, two years of pre-K. … It’s important to the country.”   

To pass the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, all 50 Senate Democrats would have to vote yes, and Harris would have to pass the tie-breaking vote. 

“We have 50 votes and we need every single one of them,” Welch said. “The Republicans have said they’ll vote no on reconciliation ... so I'm extremely concerned.”

However, he also said the progress of the infrastructure bill makes him more optimistic about the larger package in the reconciliation strategy. 

“I’m very, very upbeat about the fact that there’s been a substantial bipartisan commitment. I think it bodes well for the ultimate outcome of the very ambitious $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill,” Welch said. “Folks like (Joe) Manchin and (Kyrsten) Sinema, who’ve played a role in the smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill, may be more open to the reconciliation bill proceeding.” Both are Democrats, Manchin from West Virginia and Sinema from Arizona.

Leahy was less optimistic, but said “substantial investments in our workforce, our families, our environment and our communities are long overdue.”

The next step for the bipartisan infrastructure bill is a vote in the House, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the bipartisan bill won’t be considered in the House until the reconciliation bill passes in the Senate. 

Welch offered support for that approach.

“It's always been very clear that we were doing two things,” Welch said. “One, making our best effort to get a bipartisan infrastructure bill, and No. 2, it was done so many of the Republicans who engaged in the discussion about a bipartisan infrastructure bill understood explicitly that Democrats were gonna proceed with reconciliation.”  

The congressman also said he hopes to improve the bipartisan bill once it reaches the House, “and to the extent we can, I will work to do that.”

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