Dem frustration with Sanders boils over

Greg Nash

Sen. Bernie Sanders got a rough reception at a private meeting Wednesday with House Democrats, many of whom are frustrated that he has not conceded the Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton. 

At one point in the meeting, Sanders paused for effect after saying, “The goal is not to win elections” — a statement that elicited scattered groans among some of the Democrats present, according to multiple aides and lawmakers. Sanders then said the goal was to transform the political landscape.

{mosads}Other reports described the reaction as booing, which aides and lawmakers denied.

But whether it was groans or boos, it’s clear that patience with Sanders is running out in the House Democratic Caucus. 

Sanders acknowledged that lawmakers expressed anger with him during the meeting and maintained in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “we look at the world a little bit differently.”

While Sanders has said he plans to vote for Clinton, he has refused to endorse her or drop out of the presidential race as he pushes for more liberal policies in the official Democratic Party platform. 

He expressed support for many of the provisions in the draft platform released last week, such as a $15 per hour minimum wage, but called for an explicit rejection of the trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration with Pacific Rim countries. 

Still, there have been signs of coordination between Sanders and Clinton.

Democrats pointed to Clinton’s unveiling Wednesday of a debt-free college tuition proposal — a top issue for Sanders during the campaign — as evidence the party is unifying ahead of the national convention in Philadelphia later this month.

“Today is evidence that Sen. Sanders and Secretary Clinton are working together,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. 

Clinton’s plan would not go as far as the proposal championed by Sanders during the primary that would offer universal tuition-free education at public institutions, however.

During the meeting Wednesday, Democrats tried to press Sanders on when he’ll endorse Clinton, the party’s presumptive nominee, but he refused to offer a timeline. That refusal frustrated the lawmakers, most of whom endorsed Clinton early in the primary process.

“I was sitting in the front row … and when the question was asked, ‘When are you going to do it?’ I think there was a general sound of agreement … because they’re anxious about it. They want to see everybody, you know, have a kumbaya moment, join hands,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. 

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of the few congressional Democrats to endorse Sanders, said that his colleagues’ frustrations stem from an eagerness to keep the White House and defeat Donald Trump. 

“They want to win. They think the sooner we are all on the exact same page, the sooner we can devote 100 percent of our attention to defeating Trump,” Ellison told reporters just off the House floor. 

Yet Ellison insisted that pressing for a more progressive Democratic platform at the convention would help the party win the election.

“I’m like, look. I agree with that, but I also agree that what is really going to drive people to the polls is the issues. The issues are one of the ways we’re going to beat Trump, not just be unified. No. It’s be unified on the issues that really electrify the people,” Ellison said. 

Sanders’s opening remarks Wednesday largely adhered to the themes of his campaign stump speech. The tensions emerged when the meeting turned to a question-and-answer session.

Lawmakers questioned Sanders’s commitment to the Democratic Party, given that he has identified as an independent throughout his quarter-century tenure in Congress.

He was also challenged on whether he’d be willing to overhaul caucuses — which Sanders fared better in during the race — in the same way he’s pushed to implement reforms to the superdelegate system.

Sanders has called for allowing more open primaries so that independents can participate in Democratic primaries, a shift that could help future candidates like himself. But he hasn’t adopted a similar stance on caucuses, a type of contest that tends to only draw the most committed voters and in which he frequently performed better than Clinton during the primary campaign. 

Sanders “acknowledged that caucuses can be a problem,” according to Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), but avoided responding to questions of his party loyalty.

“He took a little bit of heat and did it with grace,” Connolly said.

Sanders assured House Democrats that he is committed to defeating Trump. And he expressed optimism about Clinton’s proposal that would eliminate tuition costs at in-state public universities for families making $125,000 or less annually.

“I want to take this opportunity to applaud Secretary Clinton for the very bold initiative she has just brought forth today for the financing of higher education. This proposal combines some of the strongest ideas she fought for during the campaign with some of the principles that I fought for,” Sanders said in a statement shortly after the Clinton campaign unveiled the measure. 

Clinton’s plan would be phased in gradually so that families earning $85,000 a year or less would be eligible for tuition free college from the start. The threshold would go up by $10,000 each year so that the goal of the maximum $125,000 could be enacted by 2021.

“American families are drowning in debt caused by ever-rising college costs,” Clinton said in a statement, “and it is imperative that the next president put forward a bold plan to make debt-free college available to all.” 

Mike Lillis contributed.

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