Welch: Keep fighting the partisan tide

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BENNINGTON — On a visit to Bennington, Rep. Peter Welch echoed recent remarks from Gov. Phil Scott, calling for bipartisan remedies for a polarized nation.

The Democratic U.S. representative and Vermont's Republican governor, who visited the county last week, both decried the partisan wrangling in Washington. Each contrasted that scene with the move civil political atmosphere they see in the Green Mountain State.

"We are kind of stalled in Congress right now," Welch said. "It is really, really unacceptable to the American people."

Welch spoke in Bennington on Friday during an afternoon meeting of the Rotary Club. Welch and two staffers had two stops prior to that. They first visited Vishay-Tansitor Electronics. Then, they spent an hour meeting with staff, residents and officials at the Vermont Veterans' Home. Col. Al Faxon, chief operating officer, led the tour.

Having served in the House for 11 years, Welch, speaking to the Rotary Club, said he's struck by the extreme partisanship that has overwhelmed efforts toward compromise on legislation.

"There have been good times and bad times," he said. "The good times have been when there is a consensus among the people who are there to get something done."

A member of the Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress, which includes Democrats and Republicans, Welch said he is pushing against rigid philosophical approaches on myriad issues most Americans want to see addressed.

A good example of reasonableness, Welch said, is a plan for reforming the individual insurance market portion of the Affordable Care Act while stabilizing the program for the next two years.

It was put forth recently by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.

The proposal would begin to address subsidy issues that most Democrats acknowledge with the act, Welch said, but wouldn't simply repeal what is commonly known as Obamacare, as Republicans repeatedly have tried to do.

Among the several state governors who've expressed support for the compromise plan is Scott, Welch noted.

Republican governors, also including Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, are saying, "let's do the Alexander-Murray fix," Welch said. "That is an example of trying to come together in a concrete way."

At some point, he added, compromising to deal with a relatively small issue could spur the kind of bipartisanship that often prevailed in Congress in the past.

"In my view, we have to break the fever," he said.

Welch said he knows from talking to Republicans that many now see both good and bad in the ACA, as do most Democrats, but in the House at least, compromises rarely make it to the floor for a vote.

He said Republican Speaker Paul Ryan remains under intense pressure from the hard right members of his party, yet he has failed to work with Democrats to pass versions of bills that a majority of the House could support.

The principal reason, Welch said, is that House Republicans have agreed not to bring a major bill to the floor unless it can be passed with Republican votes alone, giving more extreme members greater influence over bills and thwarting compromise.

"This has been a big impediment to progress," he said.

Referring to his time as president of the Vermont Senate, he recalled appointing then-Sen. Scott to an important committee chairmanship, even though the future governor was a Republican. When he has mentioned that to people in Washington, he said, "they really think I have to have a mental status exam."

The key is in finding the right person for a post regardless of party, he said. "And it's about being a nice guy; it's because that is the way to get something done."

His belief, Welch said, "is that we will have to bring the Vermont way of doing business to the U.S. Congress before we start making progress ... And I see more and more of my Republican colleagues who share this view."

Asked what could help foster bipartisan approaches, Welch said two changes would "give a boost to democracy," and help bring the nation back from the brink of a polarization abyss.

One key, he said, would be to address the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which removed restrictions on political campaign spending. When he was first elected to the House, Welch said he and Republican opponent Martha Rainville could agree, as they did, not to run negative campaign ads.

"Today, we could never enforce that kind of agreement," he said, as outside groups or wealthy donors from outside the state could funnel cash into ads with the goal of creating a Congressional majority for one party or another.

The other key, he said, is to end gerrymandering of legislative districts by whichever party is in power in states when the lines are redrawn, thereby creating "safe seats" for that party.

The trend toward states handing over redistricting authority to a nonpartisan commission, as opposed to the legislature, is beginning to address that problem, he said.

Asked by a woman who said that she's "never felt as despondent or full of despair" as she has with the political scene today, Welch acknowledged that the "guardrails of democracy" seem to have disappeared, and that the expectation that political discourse would "operate within certain lanes of travel" no longer holds.

"It is tough with this president," he said of Donald Trump, "because things change so much as to what the daily focus is, and that's a challenge."

However, those challenges also constitute "why we have to decide to engage," Welch said.

"We don't get to decide what the times are like," he added. "We get to decide whether we are going to engage in what those times require."

There is never any way to know whether an effort will succeed, he said, but Welch said he takes heart seeing the work of local organizations and business leaders around Vermont, and of municipal and state officials who are providing leadership locally.

"So thank you for what you do," he told club members, "and I am going to do everything I can do to try to restore some Vermont way of doing business to the United States Congress."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.



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