In The News

Sen. Peter Welch on the Maine shooting, Speaker Mike Johnson, Israel and Gaza, and Vermont’s F-35s

Oct 26, 2023

Mariam Zuhaib / Associated Press
Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., takes note during a Senate Judiciary Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Washington.

Eighteen people were killed Wednesday night, and 13 were injured, when a gunman opened fire at a restaurant and bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine. Police and federal agents are actively searching for a person of interest connected to the shootings.

Vermont Editionhost Mikaela Lefrak discussed the mass shooting on Thursday morning with Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt. From his Senate office in Washington, Welch brought up his frustrations over the stymied gun control debate in Congress, his recent statements on the situation in Israel and Gaza, and other current events.

Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Peter Welch: You know, I’m horrified. You had people, including young people, bowling. You’re getting together, and a person comes in with an automatic weapon and slaughters them. And it is incredibly devastating to those families and to that community. But what is so distressing is that this is a repeat story that happens again and again and again. And I have to acknowledge an immense amount of frustration that Congress won’t act on sensible gun safety legislation, including not allowing assault weapons to be in the hands of private citizens. So it’s just, we have to face up in this country to the fact that this violence has to stop. In order for it to stop there has to be significant gun safety legislation.

Mikaela Lefrak: According to the AP, [the suspect] had been committed to a mental health facility for two weeks just this past summer. Senator, do you think this tragedy and those specifics around it are going to change anything about the conversation in the Senate today, and moving forward? Do you think anything will change?

Yeah, I hate to say this, but for the years I’ve been here in the House, in the Senate, there’s a moment of silence after a horrible event like this, when in fact, we all know we need a moment of action. We don’t have the votes right now. That’s the candid reaction — because we need in the Senate 60 votes, and of course in the House you need 217, and the majority in the House is adamantly against any kind of gun safety legislation. So we’d have to get more folks elected in both parties who are just horrified about this kind of event and are willing to take action to try to stop them.

On Israel and Gaza

Senator, I also wanted to ask you about the situation in Israel and Gaza. On Monday, you released a statement in which you said that you have “grave concerns” about a potential ground invasion by Israelis in Gaza. You said it would exacerbate the already dire situation for Palestinian civilians there. But you also said that Israel has the “absolute right to attack Hamas” for its killing of more than 1,400 Israelis and taking more than 200 hostages. Can you talk us through this statement and how you square those two sentiments?

Well, first of all, this attack by Hamas was absolutely brutal and inhuman. There was a slaughter of innocent people, of children, of grandmothers, and that kind of violence. Israel has an absolute right to defend itself. Hamas did something terrible. Their philosophy is to basically destroy and kill all Jews in Israel. So Israel, in my view, clearly has a right to defend itself.

How it defends itself is an incredible dilemma for Israel, because the right to self-defense does not include the right to take actions [that are] going to have significant harm to civilians. … So whatever campaign that Israel does, [it] has to take note about the humanitarian consequences to innocent Palestinians. And that’s because those Palestinians don’t have anything to do with what Hamas did. But it also has to do with the long-term ability of all of us to work towards what has to be the political outcome — a two-state solution, where you have a secure Israel and where you have a secure Palestinian state that recognizes Israel and respects its right to safety [and] its right to recognition.

In such a divided House and Senate, what is the tenor of conversations about the situation in Israel and Gaza right now?

Well, there’s an immense amount of sadness about what happened to the Israelis in the slaughter of those civilians. There’s real shock and horror at the conduct of Hamas, and there is an immense amount of concern — and you’re hearing it expressed by President Biden who strongly supports Israel in their right to defend themselves — about the humanitarian consequences.

I mean, originally, Israel after this attack, understandably but I think not correctly, cut off all electricity, all water, food, and fuel. So this obviously was going to have incredibly dire consequences on innocent Palestinians. So the challenge here is to be supportive of Israel going after Hamas, but recognizing that how they do it really has immediate consequences for the lives of Palestinians, including a million children. And it also has long-term consequences to our ability to get to where we need to be in having a two-state solution.

On the F-35s and the Vermont Air National Guard

The Vermont Air National Guard’s lease at Leahy Burlington International Airport was extended earlier this week by the City of Burlington. And for some Vermonters, as you know, the F-35s and the Vermont Air National Guard inspire a lot of pride and patriotism, and are seen as a boon to the economy. Others are much more concerned with the jets’ negative impact on the environment and their loud noise, which can be disruptive and even unhealthy. The [F-35] program was very strongly supported from the beginning by Sen. Patrick Leahy. As a representative to Congress, you have repeatedly stood by the F-35 program. Now, as a senator, do you still feel the same way?

Well, I do, I support the decision that the Burlington City Council made to maintain its partnership with the Guard. … Having the Guard as a partner at the airport is really beneficial to our economy, and also to the safety of the airport and all the services that the Guard provides that are beneficial to civilian flight — not just the mission of the Air Guard.

Second, the F-35 is a tough issue. … And if you’re on the flight path … I’ve heard from many citizens, that’s tough. And what I’ve been doing, along with my colleagues, is doing everything we can on the mitigation of noise steps that can be taken. And there’s some significant additional possibility that we can cut down on training flights by using simulators, and then the noise abatement measures, which help. … So that’s the approach that I’ll continue to take.

What do you say to the Vermonters who are concerned about the F-35s’ environmental impact, as Vermont works so hard to cut down its carbon emissions?

Well, the military is a carbon emitter. If you have an Air Force, an Air Force has planes, so we’re going to have to get to that new generation of fuels that helps us mitigate carbon emissions. And that’s true not just for military aviation. It’s true for all of aviation. So I get that, but everything that we’re gonna try to do to mitigate and reduce carbon emissions has to be across the board, not just with aviation.

On the farm bill

The farm bill is a package of legislation passed once every five years. The current bill expires at the end of this year. The farm bill has a tremendous impact on farmers’ livelihoods, as any farmer in Vermont knows. Could you talk us through what the current situation is with the farm bill and what you’re advocating for specifically? We’ve heard Republicans talk about cutting certain programs.

The turmoil that’s occurring in the House is really affecting the farm bill in the Senate. In the Senate, we’ve got the Republican and Democratic leaders of the committee who work together pretty well. But that budget cutting, which is targeting food [and] SNAP food nutrition programs is a threat to resolution. So there’s some talk now about extending the current bill for a year. … But I think the farm bill is incredibly important. … Also, the farm bill — this is a part that I find tremendously exciting — it can be a huge help in reducing carbon emissions if we move towards regenerative agricultural practices. And more and more farmers with the right incentives are seeing that that can be economically advantageous to us as well.

On new House Speaker Mike Johnson

Yesterday, the House of Representatives swore in a new Speaker, Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson. This election wraps up three weeks of essentially chaos in the House after [House Republicans] ousted their previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy. How did the fact that the House hasn’t had a speaker for three weeks affect the Senate?

We have no partner to work with. We can pass legislation in the Senate, but if we don’t have a House partner, and they’re not even open for business, you know, this is a real threat to the functioning of our democracy. … The debate over there really reflects the turmoil within the Republican Party between the moderates and what I would call traditional Republicans and the Trump wing, that really was ultimately successful in getting into the speakership a person who is strongly in favor of Donald Trump, his policies and also his election denialism.

I served with Mr. Johnson, and we had a very cordial relationship. He’s got very easy demeanor, he’s easy to talk to. But he played a major role in the legal argument that the House Republicans made in their effort to overturn the the 2020 election. So I have a real concern that the leader of the party is now someone who was a very active election denier.

What has it been like to watch this process unfold from a different chamber? Have you spoken to Rep. Becca Balint, the Vermonter who now holds your former seat [in the House] and who, as you’ve said, has sort of had her hands tied for the last three weeks?

Well, she’s she’s doing a really, really good job. … And she’s dismayed. … House Democrats, they have to sit and wait for three weeks, and they really can’t do much. … They had to wait for the Republicans to ultimately elect Mr. Johnson.

But, you know, I have some sadness in all candor because we need bipartisanship. And one of the things I’m enjoying with the Senate is that there is a significant opportunity to work with the other party, and we have serious debates. But what we’ve seen in the House with the Republican division, the folks like Matt Gaetz, who kind of have a burn-it-down philosophy and think a shutdown is good for America — you’re not going to make progress that way. I think the question is, is [Johnson] going to accept the broader responsibility that a person who is the speaker has to make sure the House functions, or will he continue to have a focus on the most hard-right, hard-line positions that he takes?

But I have some sadness because we’ve got to make this whole Congress work and we know in Vermont that the best way you make progress is by trying to emphasize ways you can work together.

Broadcast at noon Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Story Written by Mikaela Lefrak, Tedra Meyer, Andrea Laurion & April McCullum, Vermont Public

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