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Pyramid Scheme: Vermont's Congressional Delegation Disagrees on Aid to Egypt 

After a military coup, Sanders opposes cutting off aid to Egypt.

That Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wasn’t jonesing to talk about Egypt on Monday morning is perfectly understandable. The place is a hot mess.

Near the end of a press conference in his Church Street office, Sanders was asked whether, in light of the Egyptian military’s recent deadly crackdown on protesters, the U.S. should suspend aid to the country. He thought twice before answering.

“It’s complicated—” the senator began, before reconsidering and steering the conversation back to the presser’s advertised topic: the Veterans Administration. “Let me just stay on veterans’ issues for a second, and then we’ll get elsewhere. Other questions on veterans?”

After exhausting the supply of on-topic queries, five minutes later Sanders bowed to the inevitable.

“OK, maybe a few other questions,” he said.

WPTZ-TV’s Stewart Ledbetter restated the question, asking whether it’s “time to cut off foreign aid” to the North African nation. In response, Sanders did something uncharacteristic for the bombastic, self-assured politician: He pled ignorance.

“The vision and the dream of the Arab Spring seems to have disappeared pretty quickly, and how we deal with it is enormously important,” he said. “I think we’ve got to be aggressive. I’m not exactly sure what we should do.”

Sanders, it seemed, was right where the Obama administration has been ever since the Egyptian military deposed President Mohamed Morsi early last month: all aboard the “not exactly sure what we should do” train.

That the military gunned down more than 800 protesters last week hasn’t quite nudged Sanders into the “maybe we shouldn’t fund governments who do that” camp. In his view, there are no easy answers.

“Well, I think shooting down innocent women and children and men is wrong. Obviously it is. But you have—” Sanders said, interrupting himself again. “You know, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, let’s cut off aid tomorrow.’ Fine. What happens the next day? Does the country descend into civil war? With aid, the United States continues to have some leverage.”

Not in the view of Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who’s concluded quite the opposite.

“I do believe the right decision now is to cut off aid. And, in fact, I think that gives us more leverage,” Welch says, “because it makes it clear that we won’t condone the military turning its guns on its own citizens, even as we advocate strongly for all sides to return to the ballot box. And it gives us the option of restoring aid if and when the circumstances warrant it.”

What of Sanders’ argument that American largesse is the only thing keeping Egypt’s generals on the phone with us?

“At this point, it undercuts our influence,” Welch argues. “I mean, if we don’t cut off aid when the military is using snipers to kill innocent people, when will we cut off aid?”

Surprisingly enough, the U.S. may already have done so — quietly and temporarily — at least according to a report filed late Monday by the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the Obama administration has avoided calling the ouster a “coup,” presumably because doing so would legally require it to withdraw up to $1.3 billion in military assistance. But according to the Beast’s story, the administration has nevertheless put the brakes on turning over the $585 million yet to be disbursed to Egypt this year.

Rogin’s source?

None other than a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose perch at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s foreign aid panel gives him some insight into the matter.

“[Sen. Leahy’s] understanding is that aid to the Egyptian military has been halted, as required by law,” David Carle, the Leahy spokesman, told the online news org.

In addition to Carle, Rogin also cited two unnamed administration sources, who told him the move was intended to err on the side of complying with the coup law and to preserve the U.S.’ options.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest disputed that claim Tuesday, calling the report “not accurate.” But Carle stood by it, saying Leahy’s staff heard it directly from the State Department.

As for Leahy’s position on funding Egypt, he was quick to call Morsi’s ouster a coup early last month. But as Seven Days reported at the time, he did not immediately and explicitly call on the Obama administration to withdraw aid.

“It’s a fluid situation at the moment, and he understands the administration wanting to wait for some clarity,” Carle told Seven Days a week after the coup when asked whether Leahy believed aid should be cut off. “The situation in Cairo is cloudy, but the law itself is clear.”

Carle later clarified that Leahy had always supported withdrawing American aid after Morsi’s ouster.

In the weeks after the coup, Leahy’s Appropriations panel approved language setting new conditions for Egyptian aid. Even if signed into law, though, those won’t take effect until next year.

These days, Leahy is being more explicit about his stance on the funding question. After last week’s violent crackdown, he said in a written statement that the military’s actions “warrant the strongest condemnation from the international community and from people of goodwill the world over.” He added, “Aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy.”

Now that it seems U.S. aid may already have ceased?

Carle says that’s a positive step. But, he adds, Leahy “would have preferred the administration not hesitate to say what they apparently are doing without declaring it: that this is a coup. He would’ve preferred that it be plainly stated.”

Race to October

For most GOP politicians, opposition to the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare, as they like to call it — is a given.

But it came as a surprise when Lt. Gov. Phil Scott made clear recently that he’s placing his political bets against the success of the ACA’s signature component: the health insurance exchange.

Why is it surprising? For one thing, the politically bland Republican typically does everything he can to avoid weighing in on contentious issues. It’s the stock car racer’s stock-in-trade.

For another, Scott has long said he supports Obamacare’s implementation, while opposing Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desire to craft a single-payer-like health care system by 2017.

But in a recent interview with Vermont Public Radio’s Bob Kinzel, Scott said he’s worried the exchange — an online marketplace through which many Vermonters will purchase health insurance — won’t be ready by October, when it’s supposed to go live. He said Vermont should not have chosen to become one of 16 states to design its own version of the exchange instead of opting for the generic, federal version.

“We’ve ordered something that’s custom-made, and we’re not sure how it’s going to function here,” Scott told Kinzel.

In a follow-up interview with Seven Days, Scott said he’s so concerned Vermont’s version of the exchange won’t be ready, he thinks the state should delay its launch.

“If we’re not 100 percent sure or 99 percent sure that we’re going to have this ready, then we owe it to Vermonters and businesses to delay it,” he said.

The way Scott sees it, the state doesn’t have a great track record designing and managing information technology systems. He thinks launching it in October and expecting 100,000 Vermonters to successfully sign up for a plan by January 1 is a recipe for disaster.

“It’s like building a race car for Daytona, one of the biggest, fastest tracks on the circuit. You’re building it just for that race. You don’t go anywhere to test it. You don’t try it out at all. You’re just expecting to go into the race with it,” Scott said, before losing himself in the metaphor. “I just don’t have the confidence this will be up and running in October.”

Needless to say, the guy charged with getting the exchange online, Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, sees it differently.

“We remain confident we’ll be ready by October 1,” Larson says. “The more time you commit to testing the better — we understand that — but we have an obligation to be live on October 1, and that’s what we’ll do.”

Larson says he understands Scott’s nervousness and reached out to the LG’s office after the VPR story to offer him an in-person update on his department’s progress.

So does Scott know something we don’t know about how the exchange’s development is going? Or is he making a cynical, but probably safe, political bet that a state-designed IT system will have more than a few glitches?

Or could it be, as the owner of a construction company that will have to use the exchange, he’s just another frustrated and confused Vermonter who doesn’t understand how it will impact his business?

“I don’t know how this is going to work,” Scott readily admits.

Either way, Larson should probably take him out for a test-drive.

Media Notes

When Barre-Montpelier Times Argus publisher John Mitchell sold the newspaper’s North Main Street headquarters to Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon five months ago, he didn’t have a new address in mind.

But over the past two weeks, according to Mitchell, the TA has been settling into a new 4000-square-foot space on the upper floors of the recently restored Aldrich Block — right in downtown Barre.

Who’s the new landlord? The one and only Thom Lauzon.

According to the mayor, the two real estate deals evolved independently from one another. Lauzon and Mitchell signed a purchase and sales agreement for the old headquarters in March and were expected to close on the deal this week. It wasn’t until May that the TA’s broker approached the mayor about the Aldrich Block space — and not until June that a lease was signed, Lauzon says.

“There was no contingency like, ‘Thom, if you’ll buy our building, we’ll take your space,’” Lauzon explains. “But I’m thrilled to have them. I think they’ll be a great addition to the downtown.”

Ever the Granite City booster, Lauzon adds, “We’re killing it here in Barre.”

In other media news, the hiring and un-hiring at the Burlington Free Press continues.

As we reported last month, the Freeps brought on at least five new reporters and editors earlier this summer after several veteran reporters retired or moved on. A month later, on orders from the paper’s owner, Gannett, it laid off 13 employees — including two of the recent newsroom hires.

Now — wait for it — the Freeps has rehired one of those on-again, off-again employees.

As she recounts on her blog, editor Emilie Stigliani was handed a pink slip on the one-month anniversary of starting her Freeps job, for which she’d moved across the country. But the bad news didn’t stay bad for long.

“Exactly one week after the layoff, I was contacted by my old boss,” she writes. “The other editor had stepped down and [the boss] wanted to offer me my job back (with a few different responsibilities).”

No word on whether any others have been reinstated. Neither Freeps publisher Jim Fogler nor executive editor Mike Townsend responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Fogler’s predecessor at the Freeps, Brad Robertson, is returning to Burlington — this time to take a job at MyWebGrocer. Robertson wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that after a 30-year career at Gannett, including a three-year stint at the Freeps, he’s leaving the industry — and Arizona.

Welcome back, Brad.

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.

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Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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