U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) bucked his caucus early Friday morning and joined the GOP majority to approve additional funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and partially pay for it by making cuts in government loan programs designed to support fuel efficiency and investments in renewable energy.
Welch, a chief deputy whip in the Democratic caucus, was one of six Democrats to join with 213 Republicans in approving the measure. A similar measure failed to pass the House on Wednesday, largely because Democrats opposed linking the disaster relief to budget cuts and Tea Party Republicans who thought there weren't enough budget cuts to offset the disaster relief spending.
Welch's vote came despite his visceral disapproval to linking spending cuts to disaster relief.
Welch railed his GOP colleagues Wednesday (see video below) for forcing budget cuts in order to pay for disaster relief, something he said has never been done before. Despite his objections, however, Welch told Seven Days in a phone interview he voted in favor of the measure both Wednesday and early Friday for a simple reason: He felt it was his obligation as Vermont's lone voice in the U.S. House to support getting money to the flood-damaged state as quickly as possible.
"That's a good principle," said Welch of standing firm against GOP-led efforts to link disaster relief to further cuts to federal spending. "But, there's also a practical reality if you're living in Rochester or Waterbury or Roxbury or Pittsfield or Wilmington and are up against the wall to start rebuilding. Never before have we done a stick-up and it's something we shouldn't do. But we also have Vermonters who are in desperate need and my first obligation to Vermonters and get the money to them as soon as we can."
A similar showdown between Democrats and the GOP occurred earlier this year during the debate about whether to raise the federal debt ceiling. At the time, Welch voted against the deal to link a rise in the federal debt ceiling to deep cuts in federal spending — particularly in entitlements. However, Welch did admit that he would have voted in favor of those cuts had he been the deciding vote.
The bill partially offset $3.65 billion in funding for FEMA with a $1.5 billion cut to a separate U.S. Department of Energy manufacturing loan program, as well $100 million to the loan program that had funded the now-bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra.
"I believe it is irresponsible to use the imminent end of the fiscal year and the pressure of a shutdown to renege on their earlier budget deal and go even further in cutting costs," said Welch. "My Democratic colleagues are making a good case for not making a link and I think the Republican leadership is beginning to realize that the American public's patience is wearing thin with their antics."
Another regional Democrat — Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) — whose district in northern New York was also hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene voted against the measure. Owens told WAMC-FM that he wanted the House to approve a FEMA funding package more in line with what the Senate has considered — nearly $7 billion in disaster assistance with no offsets.