U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, right, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, arrive at a town hall event in Springfield on Sept. 4. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has become one of the most forceful advocates of its defeat. 

Passing the more limited measure now, he has argued, would “end all leverage” that progressives have to convince moderates in the U.S. Senate to support a far more ambitious, $3.5 trillion package that has become the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. 

But so far, at least, Sanders has failed to convince the sole member of the House hailing from own state: U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. In an interview with VTDigger on Wednesday, Welch said he planned to back the infrastructure bill if it came to a vote on Thursday. 

“Our democracy is at stake,” said Welch, a member of the House Progressive Caucus. “My Republican colleagues are making an argument that government doesn’t work. I’m doing everything I can to build trust in government … by passing legislation that will help people back home, like with an infrastructure bill.”

Sanders’ and Welch’s disagreement is over tactics, not policy. 

Both support the substance of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which would rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges and fund new climate resilience and broadband initiatives. When the measure passed the Senate last month on a strikingly bipartisan vote of 69-30, Sanders and his seatmate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joined the majority. 

Sanders and Welch also back the $3.5 trillion package, which Senate Democrats hope to pass through the budget reconciliation process — allowing them to approve it with a simple majority, rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes. The so-called Build Back Better bill includes free community college, universal pre-K, expanded Medicare coverage, paid family and medical leave, and more climate initiatives. 

That measure, Welch said, “has really good things for families and for the climate.” 

Putting both bills — and the bulk of Biden’s domestic policy agenda — at risk of failure are two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have balked at the size of the $3.5 trillion package and the tax hikes proposed to pay for it.

Sanders and fellow progressives have in recent weeks argued that the only way to cajole Manchin and Sinema to support the broader bill in the Senate is to hold hostage the narrower bill, which they and other moderates support, in the House. 

“Let’s be crystal clear. If the bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed on its own on Thursday, this will be in violation of an agreement that was reached within the Democratic Caucus in Congress,” Sanders said in a written statement Tuesday. “More importantly, it will end all leverage that we have to pass a major reconciliation bill.”

That, Sanders said, “means there will be no serious effort to address the long-neglected crises facing the working families of our country, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor” — not to mention climate change. “I strongly urge my House colleagues to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Congress passes a strong reconciliation bill.”

Welch said he understands Sanders’ concern that infrastructure passage would leave Democrats without adequate pressure to push through the larger $3.5 trillion package. But he argued that House passage of the infrastructure plan wouldn’t have a significant impact on the Senate’s ability to eventually pass the reconciliation bill.

Welch expressed some skepticism about whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would even call a vote on the infrastructure bill Thursday, which could indicate she was struggling to find sufficient support for the bill. House Republican leaders have urged their members to oppose it, though some moderate members of the GOP have said they plan to support it.

Welch said he and Sanders have spoken privately about the situation, but those conversations have not prompted Welch to change his mind. 

“If there’s a vote, I’m going to vote ‘yes,’” Welch said. “We’ve got a challenge, and it’s getting this place to pass legislation. It’s about protecting our democracy. Us failing is not an option.”

Grace Benninghoff is a general assignment reporter for VTDigger. She is a 2021 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and holds a degree in evolutionary and ecological biology from the University of Colorado.