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Reporter Debrief: Vermont's U.S. Senators Take Control Of Influential Committees

Two images, one of bernie sanders, one of patrick leahy, side by side
Angela Evancie and Elodie Reed
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VPR
Now that the U.S. Senate is in Democratic control, Vermont's U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy will chair influential committees.

As Congress enters a new session, with Democrats carrying slim control of the U.S. Senate, leadership across Senate committees will also shift to the Democrats. That means big changes for Vermont's two senators: Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders.

Leahy will chair the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, which controls spending for government agencies and departments, and Sanders will chair the U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget, which drafts Congress’ annual budget plan.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with senior reporter Bob Kinzel, who has been covering the developments in the U.S. Senate. Their conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Henry Epp: So, Bob, tell us in very practical terms, what does this mean for Sen. Leahy and Sen. Sanders that the Democrats now control the U.S. Senate?

Bob Kinzel: Henry, it's huge. And here's why: Sen. Leahy is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen. Sanders is now the head of the Senate Budget Committee. So, the two senators from Vermont will have an enormous say over how the federal budget is put together and how virtually every federal program is funded.

I haven't been able to find a time when two senators from the same state had this much influence over federal spending. And we're going to see the importance of this development in just a few weeks as Congress considers President Joe Biden's nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. Both Leahy and Sanders favor that package, and they want it to be big and expensive.

An online store selling a chairman sanders crewneck, which is black and features Bernie sanders sitting in a metal folding chair, wearing a jacket, handmade mittens and a face mask
Credit Screenshot / Friends of Bernie Sanders
The Bernie Sanders campaign is capitalizing on the senator's recent meme fame and new Senate committee chair role.

What implications could these roles and leadership positions have for Vermonters?

It could have a big impact. Now, Sen. Leahy has been a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee for a number of years. One principle he's always fought for is to be certain that small states like Vermont don't get shortchanged in the budget process. That's why he's pushed for something called the Small State Minimum in almost every important budget bill. This ensures that smaller states don't get penalized when money is allocated on a per capita basis.

And it's one of the reasons why the state of Vermont got $1.5 billion in federal aid from the very first stimulus package. Leahy explained this policy to me this week:

“I will continue to make sure Vermont is able to take advantage of what we call the, some call it the Leahy Amendment, others call the Small State Amendment, which puts money in and covers a certain basic amount for small states like ours.”

Bob, this change in Senate leadership means this will be the first time that Sen. Sanders has chaired a major committee. So, what will be his agenda in this role, chairing the Budget Committee?

There's no question his agenda will be focused on the plight of working families throughout the country. This is a group that is struggling economically and one that's seen very little income growth over the last 25 years.

I had a chance to ask Sen. Sanders this week to outline the details of what he called his "working families agenda":

“People are hurting right now. They’re worried about being evicted. They’re worried about feeding their kids. They’re worried about being able to afford to go to the doctor. You're accumulating more debt. We have got to address that crisis and do it immediately. We're going to expand unemployment benefits, and you can't make it on eight bucks an hour, nine bucks an hour, 10 bucks an hour. You need at least 15 bucks an hour.”

And Bob, the Democrats have a really narrow majority in the Senate, basically as small of a majority as you could get. So how will this affect both Sen. Leahy and Sen. Sanders’ agendas in these new leadership roles?

Henry, that's an excellent point, because there are a number of relatively moderate Democratic senators, and the Democratic leaders know they've got to hold on to them and attract some Republican support in order to pass important legislation. So, the key will be finding that sweet spot of compromise that achieves a large percentage of your goals without setting off a highly partisan fight.

A lot also depends on how this new Democratic majority deals with the filibuster in the Senate. Now, right now, on most legislation, it takes 60 votes to advance the bill to the floor, and then it needs 51 votes to pass. The Democrats are considering a plan to limit the use of the filibuster by the Republicans so that it only takes a simple majority to advance the bill to the Senate floor. It's not clear how this fight is going to be resolved, but if the Democrats do make changes, it means that they'll need less Republican support to pass some of their big priority bills.

More from Vermont Edition: Patrick Leahy On His New Senate Leadership Posts

Well, finally, Bob, amid all of this, Sen. Leahy, as the longest serving Democrat currently in the Senate, will become the new Senate president. Why is that important, and what duties come along with that role?

Henry, this places Sen. Leahy, third in line to replace the president in the event that the president dies in office, resigns or is removed from office. So that line of succession is the vice president, Kamala Harris, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the president pro tem of the Senate, that's Pat Leahy.

As such, Leahy will be given certain presidential briefings every day, and much to his dismay, he will be assigned a special security team that will travel with him everywhere he goes, and I mean everywhere. No trips to the store without the security team. This summer, he can't go to the Montpelier Farmer's Market without the security team. No walks in the woods near his home in Middlesex without the security team.

Now, he was president pro tem once before, about eight years ago, and he told me that having this ever-present security team means he's gotta make a big adjustment in his life.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Bob Kinzel @VPRKinzel.

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