Sen. Peter Welch’s experience forging professional friendships fills a role in the Senate, where dealmakers are becoming gradually more scarce. | Photos by Francis Chung/POLITICO
Peter Welch doesn’t cut the profile of a newly elected senator.
At 76, he’s the oldest person ever first elected to the upper chamber. And when the longtime former House member sat for a recent interview, rather than rehearse Democratic talking points, he went out of his way to praise the other party’s leader.
“I like Mitch McConnell. And if you quote me on that, I’ll deny it,” Welch said half-jokingly, citing the Kentucky Republican’s willingness to work with Democrats. Welch is also a rare House veteran who almost immediately stated his preference for the Senate, citing the increased power of individual members compared to the House.
The Vermonter’s experience forging professional friendships fills a role in the Senate, where dealmakers are becoming gradually more scarce. Roughly half a dozen centrist Republican senators like Richard Shelby of Alabama, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio left last term, many replaced by more conservative members. Moderates on the other side, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) could leave come 2024.
Before Welch was elected to succeed close friend and retiring Senate president pro tempore Patrick Leahy, he served in the House for more than a decade — occupying the seat Bernie Sanders held before becoming a senator. And Welch has struck up a surprising bipartisan friendship with Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.), continuing the close relationship of their two predecessors, who had helped steer the Senate through plenty of politically rocky spending battles.
A big lesson from Britt’s time working for Shelby, she recalled, “was the importance of relationships in the Senate. … And I think a perfect example of that was Sen. Shelby’s relationship with Sen. Leahy.”
“And so, Peter and I talked when we got here … about being able to continue that legacy of building relationships with people whom you might not agree” with on most ideological choices, Britt added.
Welch has embraced progressive ideals as well, voting to decrease defense spending and publicly calling on President Joe Biden to use the 14th Amendment if necessary to avoid a debt default. Still, his identity skews much closer to Leahy’s than Sanders’, despite the real friendship he’s formed with another first-termer who skews progressive: the 6’8″ Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman.
When Welch and Fetterman first met during orientation for incoming members of Congress, they promptly exchanged hoodies.
“Mine was (University of Vermont),” Welch said of the hoodie he gifted Fetterman, who’s known for donning sweatshirts. “And his was the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Welch, who says he is 5’8″, joked: “I couldn’t find a hoodie that was big enough for him. And he couldn’t find a hoodie that was small enough for me.”
Their friendship later deepened when Fetterman sought inpatient treatment for depression after a stroke he suffered during his campaign. Welch visited Fetterman in the hospital to keep track of his colleague’s recovery. And Fetterman made clear that the admiration is mutual.
“He’s the nicest dude in D.C.,” Fetterman said of Welch in an interview in the Pennsylvanian’s office, conducted with the help of a tablet given the auditory processing challenges of his stroke recovery.
Welch “is like a unicorn,” Fetterman added. “If somebody has a problem with Peter, you’re the problem, not Peter.”
Their unique bond eventually became bipartisan, when Welch invited 53-year-old Fetterman and 41-year-old Britt to his Washington home for dinner after the Senate finished its bruising debt-limit debate. Welch cooked his wife’s salmon recipe, and Britt walked away with two new allies.
Before Welch became a member of the House, he served in the Vermont Senate since 1980, becoming the first Democratic Senate president in the history of the rural state — which has its own odd microcosm of politics, with both hyperliberal Sanders and Republican Gov. Phil Scott elected statewide. While the “career politician” label has been lobbed Welch’s way, including from his opponents for the Senate seat, he’s shrugged off the attack, responding he’s always served Vermonters’ interest.
Inhabiting the role of across-the-aisle bond-builder comes naturally to Welch, despite the deep-blue profile of his state. During his eight terms in the House, he also acquired a reputation for being able to work with lawmakers of different backgrounds, though Welch acknowledged that his views of the House changed significantly for the worse after Jan. 6, 2021.
“It was really disappointing” to see the Capitol riot fail to dissuade more than 140 Republicans from voting not to certify President Joe Biden’s victory, Welch said. He called that pre-dawn vote in the House: “the saddest moment of my congressional career.”
Whether Welch can find a less reflexively partisan place to land in the Senate remains to be seen, given how bitterly divided the chamber still remains on most high-profile issues. But he clearly sees a mandate, as the former longtime occupant of an at-large, statewide House district, to “carry on that tradition” he felt Leahy personified, to represent all ideological perspectives.
His new, younger coworkers may provide some help in that department. Asked whether he gave Fetterman and Britt any advice about how to handle Congress, however, Welch answered humbly.
“I actually don’t think either of them needs much advice from me,” he said. “I’ve got what I feel is the kinship with them.”