Sen. Bernie Sanders, Gov. Phil Scott and Congressman Peter Welch at a press conference Monday at the Statehouse
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) campaigned across the state last fall against Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott. But at a press conference Monday morning at the Vermont Statehouse, the trio tripped over one another in praise of the first-term governor.
What changed? Scott has become one of a handful of Republican governors to oppose congressional efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“You’re not getting compliments from all your colleagues for doing this,” Welch told Scott, who flashed a sheepish grin. “But you’re getting a lot of compliments from the Vermonters you represent.”
Added Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), whose budget Scott vetoed last month, “I want to thank the governor, as well, for speaking up, because it’s not an easy thing to speak up and go against the prevailing will of your party.”
Scott did, indeed, voice forceful opposition to repeal legislation U.S. Senate Republicans hope to bring to a vote in the coming weeks, arguing that it would “leave our state with a budget deficit we could not absorb” without cutting services or raising taxes.
“The consequences for Vermonters would be severe,” the governor said of the bill.
Scott called it “imperative” that Republicans and Democrats work together to improve the ACA, but he was hazy on the details of what he sought. Asked whether there was an approach that might satisfy him and Vermont’s left-leaning congressional delegation, the governor retreated to his talking points.
“Well, certainly we need to protect for Vermont the high level of funding for [the state] and increased flexibility,” Scott said, citing a state pilot project to treat 30,000 Medicaid patients through an accountable care organization. “We would like to continue to do what we’ve been doing and enhance that, so that we can protect Vermonters.”
So he’d rather not see any changes to the ACA, better known as Obamacare?
“Well, no, there are some changes,” he clarified. “I mean, the reality is, I think, and this is something that the Congress is going to have to deal with: What’s in place now is unsustainable for the future. But we need more of these pilot projects.”
Sanders, a longtime proponent of single-payer health care, was far more clear about the approach he would take to reform the ACA: Provide a public health insurance option, lower Medicare eligibility from 65 to 55, and require prescription drug price negotiation.
Gov. Phil Scott, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Congressman Peter Welch, Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Sen. Tim Ashe at a press conference Monday at the Statehouse
“Those are three proposals that I think would win widespread support all over this country and strengthen the Affordable Care Act as we move toward Medicare-for-all,” the senator said.
Asked whether he agreed with Sanders’ proposals, Scott pivoted to his message of bipartisan cooperation.
“I’m just asking us to take a deep breath,” he said. “Put politics aside. Get to the table and come up with something that works for us in Vermont and for the country.”
Asked again about Sanders’ three-part plan, Scott got an assist from Welch.
“Let me answer this,” the Democratic congressman said. “I support everything that Bernie just outlined. I’m a cosponsor of bills to do that. But a lot of that is going to have to take place at the federal level. That’s on us.”
Asked a third time to respond to Sanders’ proposals, Scott demurred once more.
“Well, again, I’m not going to get into — to speculate on the provisions of something that hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “Again, I’m just advocating for people to get together so that we can have some discussions about those three issues, along with other concerns that maybe Republicans have as well.”
Sanders, apparently, felt compelled to rescue the Republican governor. He stepped up to the podium, put a hand on Scott’s shoulder and said, “Let me just add: I didn’t mean to put the governor on the spot here.”
An audience of activists and political staffers broke out in laughter.
“Those are the issues that I’m fighting for, but I very much appreciate Gov. Scott and his fellow Republicans being here,” Sanders said. “We are united in saying that this legislation, if passed, will be a disaster for the state of Vermont. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Sanders patted Scott on the back and concluded, “But I do want to thank the governor very much for his help on this.”
Scott soon reciprocated. As the press conference drew to a close, a reporter asked Sanders about a federal investigation into his wife’s tenure as president of Burlington College — and allegations that Jane O’Meara Sanders committed federal loan fraud.
“Oh, jeez,” Sanders said with a grimace, declining to answer.
The crowd jeered the reporter.
“Maybe we can save that for another time,” Scott suggested.