Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (left) and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson
In rapid-fire sequence, the U.S. Senate and House this week passed a bill providing assistance for those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and postponed an imminent deadline on raising the federal debt limit. The bill maintains federal spending at roughly current levels and allows the government to continue functioning until December 8.
As a consequence, Vermont legislative leaders plan to cancel an October special session that was scheduled in anticipation of significant federal budget cuts.
“As soon as the president signs [the bill], we will cancel the October session,” said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) will also hold off on officially canceling the session until the bill becomes law, although he said “it looks 99 percent certain.”
“This takes the immediate pressure off,” said Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin. “It means a continuation of the status quo. Under the circumstances, that’s good news.”
Still, as Ashe pointed out, the uncertainty over federal spending remains. “It doesn’t diminish the scale of the reckoning we might have to face,” he said.
And, Johnson added: “If this congress and president are good at anything, it’s chaos and uncertainty.”
The view from Vermont’s congressional delegation is much the same.
“Congress has nothing to brag about,” said Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “This is the bare minimum. We should be passing budgets, not continuing resolutions.”
The quick congressional action followed President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement on Wednesday that he supported Democratic leadership’s proposal for a three-month extension of the debt limit. Republican leaders had wanted to extend the limit until after next year’s midterm elections.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) indicated that there may have been a strong element of realpolitik in Trump’s reversal.
“[Republican] leadership was arguing for an 18-month extension, but they didn’t have the votes to deliver it,” Leahy said. “The president … agreed with [Senate Minority Leader Charles] Schumer and [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi, because he knew it would be the Democrats who would provide the votes to keep the lights on.”
When asked if this vote might signal a new day of bipartisan cooperation, Leahy was cautious. “I hope I’m not deceiving myself, but I think it can,” he said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement that he was glad the bill “passed with a great deal of support.”
“To not extend the debt ceiling and for the U.S. not to pay its outstanding bills would precipitate a major global financial crisis,” he said.
Welch is hopeful that this outbreak of cooperation will extend to another issue.
“The other area where I hope there’s some engagement by Trump with Democrats is on DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals],” Welch said. “If President Trump wants to help the Dreamers, the Democrats are the ones who are going to do it. Will he follow through?”
(Dreamer — a reference to Congress’ failed DREAM Act of 2001 — is political slang for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. DACA, an executive order signed in 2012 by president Barack Obama, had allowed them to remain in the U.S.)
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.