On the second day of Christmas, Sen. Patrick Leahy gave ... a press conference.
Coming with tidings of appropriations and joy, he stopped in the common area of the Burlington International Airport after flying in with his wife Marcelle, on their way home to Middlesex to spend the rest of the holidays.
Leahy (D-Vt.) talked for about 30 minutes to 20 round yon members of the media about the contents of the $1.4 trillion 2020 appropriations agreement that was signed into law by President Donald Trump just before Christmas – particularly sharing those items that would direct funds to Vermont.
He also spoke about a column he’d written that appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 23. In his column Leahy criticized the President for blocking witnesses from testifying in his impeachment, and senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell for their assertions that they do not intended to be fair or impartial jurors in the Senate’s impeachment trial.
“The week’s leading up to Christmas were pretty hectic. The Appropriations Committee was working most nights and weekends,” Leahy said. “But it paid off. We did what everybody said was impossible: We passed a major appropriations bill that was signed into law, so there won’t be a government shutdown.”
Access to generic drugs
One of the things the senator said he was most pleased with was working on the CREATE (Creating and Restoring Equal Access To Equivalent Samples) Act. The CREATE Act means pharmaceutical companies will not be able to perpetually block the use of generic drugs.
“It will save the federal government almost $4 billion over the next 10 years,” Leahy said. “It’s going to save the average consumer throughout the country billions and billions more.”
Over the objections of the administration that wanted cuts in investments in science and research, he said, the appropriations bill includes significant increases in this area, and money to study and combat climate change.
Also included for the first time since 1996 is funding – to the tune of $25 million – to research the causes of gun violence.
“I want to think our children and grandchildren will go to school safely,” said Leahy.
He talked about the $1.5 billion included in the appropriations bill to fight the opioid crisis with the State Opioid Response grants, saying, “a lot of this money is being used at the University of Vermont medical school.”
The president wanted to cut out money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, referred to as LIHEAP, but it has been included with $20 million available in Vermont.
“Maybe if you’re a resident of Mar-a-Lago in Florida, you don’t worry about the cold,” Leahy said. “We have to make sure that people in these northern areas where it does get so cold don’t have to make a choice between whether they eat or they heat.”
Help for cleaner water
$25 million, an increase of more than $4.5 million, is included to improve water quality, phosphorus runoff and to help preserve Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog, Leahy said.
Funding for the Northern Border Regional Commission, which works to create jobs in the northern parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, was increased by $5 million.
And there is $20 million in the bill for the new Dairy Business Innovation program, “that comes directly to Vermont,” he said.
Leahy mentioned increasing funding for Historic Revitalization Grants as a personal interest.
“You know we’ve done that for years and years in Vermont under the tremendous leadership of the late Paul Bruhn. I always told him I wanted to name these grants after him and he said, ‘No, no, no, just get the money.’”
Leahy said he’d finally done it anyway, getting $7.5 million for the program which is now known nationally as the Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grant program.
“The Waterbury Dam has been a problem for years,” he said. They allocated an initial expenditure of $20 million for a risk assessment there.
Leahy said he called Gov. Scott about this issue. “We used to go there with our parents to go boating and fishing. We know that had that dam burst ... whole towns would have been wiped out.”
Also included is $13 million for the Vermont National Guard to build a new facility at the Mountain Warfare School in Jericho.
Both parties working together
“In the appropriations committee we had strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. We did it the way we used to. We had legislation passed and both parties were involved,” said Leahy.
He characterized the tone of the Senate now as “more worried than acrimonious.”
As one of the few senators who have been on a presidential impeachment trial, he said, he’s often asked about that.
“One thing we didn’t do, Democrats or Republicans, didn’t coordinate with the White House. Bill Clinton was a friend of mine and I was not about to call him up and say, ‘What do we do now?’” he said.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to coordinate the impeachment with the president. “We’re an independent branch of government,” said Leahy. “The White House has blocked witnesses. In both the Nixon impeachment and the Clinton impeachment, there was no blocking of witnesses.”
He continued, “I hate to see the country ever have to face an impeachment whether Republican or Democrat, but once they do the Senate is supposed to be the conscience of the nation. There’s only 100 of us and we represent 325 million people. That is a remarkable obligation.”
He is concerned about the president’s foreign policy of denigrating our allies, particularly NATO, saying that NATO has protected democracy and helped to avoid another world war since World War II: “I wish he’d read a history book. I don’t know if he ever has. I wish he’d read the Constitution. I don’t know if he’s done that either.”
Leahy started his remarks by reflecting on 1974, when he was first elected to the Senate from Vermont, the only state at that time that had never elected a Democrat to the Senate.
As he reached the end of his press conference he said that he has served with almost 400 of the 2,000 senators who have served in the U.S. Senate: “I go back over the 16,000 votes I’ve cast. I’m sure I could find some in there and say, ‘What was I thinking?’ But I do know that when I cast it, I was using my best judgement and following my conscience.”