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Vermont will have loudest voice in federal spending debates

Published: Jan. 27, 2021 at 2:03 PM EST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Vermont’s U.S. senators will scrutinize and steer every dollar the country spends. Sens. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are set to lead the Appropriations and Budget committees respectively.

For every dollar Vermonters pay in federal taxes the state gets back nearly $1.50. That deal may get even sweeter with the state’s U.S. senators leading discussions surrounding where and how the country should spend trillions in tax dollars.

We asked Leahy about a long-running joke in state politics that Vermont’s roads would be paved in gold when he assumed the chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee. “I think sterling silver will be plenty,” he quipped.

Kidding aside, the committee dictates where every penny of federal spending goes.

Even in the minority last year, Leahy, the country’s most senior senator, used his influence to ensure Vermont received more than its ‘fair share’ of coronavirus relief. He will have even more power to tap into this year.

Leahy, isn’t afraid of playing favorites. “my interests have been first, and foremost, Vermont,” he said.

Just down the halls of power, Sanders will lead the Budget committee. That group of senators is tasked with outlining broad priorities without getting into the dollars and cents. Sanders said he plans on leading a dramatic shift in direction.

“Instead of tax breaks for the rich and large corporations, I think there’s going to be a focus on the needs of working families and the middle class,” he said.

Sanders argues, as he has over his long political career, that federal spending policy is the best tool to address systemic inequalities, from widening gaps between the haves and have-nots to racial justice.

“Sen. Sanders will move the budget in a progressive direction, I don’t have any doubt about that,” said Prof. Mark Rom with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Rom said Sanders’ desired agenda won’t change, like his preference for a Medicare-for-All. But, as chairman the progressive icon will be constrained by what’s politically possible given the breakdown of power in Washington.

“He has to be able to write a budget that’s going to be acceptable to other Democrats,” said Rom, “that’s going to be a moderating force.”

Sanders concedes an agenda that tracks closely with President Joe Biden’s agenda has a path forward whereas some of his priorities do not in the immediate political climate.

“Right now, we have to do what we can do,” he said.

Sanders said hiking the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, infrastructure deal, improving access to health care, addressing climate change, and tackling the pandemic are all doable. But each, represent heavy political lifts.

Through a process known as reconciliation, Democrats could theoretically pass up to three bills directly related to federal finances this year without any Republican support.

Asked about the possibility of jamming a laundry list of Democratic priorities through the reconciliation process, Leahy said, “it can be done, but it takes an awful lot of work.”

He suggests a more traditional path, working with both sides to compromise and being willing to get 85 percent of what he wants. Leahy said the remainder can always wait for the next year, and set of negotiations.

While this new Congress is nearly a month old already, Leahy and Sanders still haven’t officially taken control of their committees just yet. That transfer of power was first slowed by Georgia’s runoff elections, which gave the Democrats majority control, and is now waiting on a rules package expected to be finalized any day.

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