WASHINGTON — With one of the safest seats in Congress, Vermont's lone Representative, Peter Welch, could be easily forgiven if he gave up on trying to get anything done and joined in the partisan bickering that's come to define the House.
Welch is most definitely a liberal, and an unapologetic one at that. And House Democrats — fighting to take back the House in 2014 — generally have little incentive to work across the aisle as Republicans are still trying to manage their fractured conference more than two years after they took control. But the soft-spoken Vermonter has taken a different route and gone out of his way to befriend GOP members.
He's been the only Democrat on a Middle East trip led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, he's gone hiking in the Grand Canyon with Arizona Republican David Schweikert, and he's introduced legislation with everyone from moderates like Chris Gibson to uber-conservatives like Steve Stockman. He'll host bipartisan dinners at his house near Capitol Hill. Welch even wanders over to the Republican cloakroom off the House floor regularly to say hello to members, grab some popcorn, and just hang out.
Welch's work with Republicans isn't going to solve a budget impasse or fix the country's debt crisis. But while he readily acknowledges that reality, Welch sees the work more as a baby step toward answering the question he hears most often from constituents: Why can't you all just get along?
"There's a mutual frustration that a lot of rank-and-file members have, where we share the dismay of the people we represent at just how messed up Congress is and how it's failing to do its job," Welch said in an recent interview with BuzzFeed.
"I pay respect to the fact that these people are exactly the same as me," he said of his GOP colleagues. "People in Vermont aren't the same as people in Arkansas. But they are voters and entitled to respect. They elected the people I work with, so I tend to start with a real presumption of respect for the people I'm working with."
Furthermore, as a member of the minority, it's sometimes hard to get Republican leadership to pay attention to anything Welch might like to see get done, and teaming up with a GOP member can get a Democrat access to the speaker or the majority leader one would not have otherwise had.
Case in point: When Hurricane Irene caused severe damage in Vermont, Welch found himself in a bad spot.
"I'm in a delegation of one, I'm in the wrong party, I'm not on a relevant committee. So this is a problem. And this was happening when the House Republicans were against disaster relief without an offset," he said.
Welch called everyone "who had a whisper of Irene" in their districts and found an important ally in New York Republican Chris Gibson. The pair started an Irene relief working group, and eventually came up with a solution and convince Cantor to come along.
"He made a difference; he really made a difference," said Gibson. "This was a meeting of three people: Peter, myself, and Eric Cantor. He's an effective communicator, he listens well, he's respectful, and he helped shape that legislation even as a member of the minority."
To convince Cantor he was serious, Welch sided with Republicans on a procedural vote when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had been working hard to keep Democrats united.
"Apparently that was noted in the weird world that we are in as me being serious, rather than just political," he said.
"I did have to pay a price for this — I had to go on a [trip] to the Middle East and I was the one Democrat," Welch joked. "I said, 'Cantor, why am I here?' and he said, 'Well, the rules are we needed a Democrat, and we didn't get a yes until we got to W.'"
Beyond parochial concerns, Welch has found himself signing on to plenty of Republican measures where their principles intersect, especially when it comes to avoiding or ending overseas conflict, helping rural and farming areas, and reining in government spying programs.
As more libertarian-minded Republicans have come to Congress, Welch has said it's been a natural fit to work with them on issues like foreign intervention or civil liberties. He's teamed up with a number of GOP members, including Gibson and Michele Bachmann to oppose intervention in Syria. Welch is a strong supporter of House efforts, like those led by Rep. Justin Amash, to shrink the National Security Agency's ability to collect data on civilians.
"It's a shared value of wanting to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights," Welch said previously.
It's difficult to find a Republican who has a bad thing to say about Welch. Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam called Welch "a happy warrior."
"He brings a joy to the legislative process and a respect for colleagues that enhances his effectiveness," Roskam said. "There are many members of Congress who are angry, and Peter is not one of them. He's just easy to work with and engaging, and as a result he's well thought of."
Welch is steadfastly liberal on issues like gay marriage, abortion rights, and is an advocate for single payer health care. He acknowledges the "tectonic" differences between Democrats and Republicans but said he's seen a growing effort in the House to try and find agreement when it's there. Welch co-chairs the "No Labels" group in the House — a coalition comprising 70 members who identify themselves as "problem solvers." A lot of these members hail from districts where it's maybe more politically advantageous to be seen as a reach-across-the-aisle kind of politician. But Welch, who safely holds his seat, says even members who aren't at risk of losing their seats are just as frustrated with Washington as he is.
"There's a lot of folks here who would feel much better if Congress would make progress on things — like anything at all. Running at stall speed — which is at best what we're doing — is really bad for the country," he said. "You get to know them, and you get to see that even if you totally disagree with them, their motivation is identical to yours. Over time if you work together, you find the areas where you can disagree and maintain your conflict over the topline issues."