Bernie Sanders’s awkward return to the Senate

Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE is back in the Senate, and his return has been a bit awkward.

The Vermont senator enjoyed roaring crowds on the 2016 campaign trail and quickly became a political celebrity, raking in donations and appearing on “Saturday Night Live.” He received a standing ovation at the Senate Democratic caucus lunch last week, where he was allowed to speak for nearly half an hour. 


But otherwise, his return has been described by a variety of sources as “low key.”

Sanders attracted more than 12 million votes in the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses — including the support of hundreds of thousands of young liberals — by calling for a “revolution” and an overhaul of the Democratic Party.

That message has been less enthusiastically received in the Senate, where lawmakers often note that Sanders enjoys the full privileges of membership in the Democratic caucus even though he is technically an independent.

A senior Democratic aide said Sanders “annoyed” some colleagues last week by proclaiming in a speech his desire to “transform the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors.”

Sanders made similar remarks during his return speech to the Democratic caucus last week, where he discussed the lessons to be learned from his campaign.

“He thinks it meant if we really want to empower people, we’ve got to change the party,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGOP Sen. Johnny Isakson to resign at end of year Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment House Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 MORE (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He did talk about money versus outreach and how we need to do more outreach.

“It wasn’t a ‘Rah! Rah! Do back flips [speech],’ ” Tester added. “It was, ‘I’ve been everywhere and this is what I saw and this is what I heard.’ ” 

Despite far exceeding the low expectations that most Democrats in Washington had of his campaign before it caught fire, Sanders doesn’t return with a halo. 

“He’s still Bernie,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who sat next to him at a lunch meeting. 

Schatz said he wanted to make sure the 74-year-old Sanders feels welcomed.

“I asked him if he had a chance to rest and he said yes,” he said. “It’s our responsibility that the relationship between him and colleagues stays strong.”

Sanders cast his first votes since Jan. 12 on Monday.

Colleagues including Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownHillicon Valley: Google to promote original reporting | Senators demand answers from Amazon on worker treatment | Lawmakers weigh response to ransomware attacks Senate Democrats want answers on 'dangerous' Amazon delivery system Hillicon Valley: Uber vows to defy California labor bill | Facebook, Google, Twitter to testify on mass shootings | Facebook's Libra to pursue Swiss payments license MORE (D-Ohio) and Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenThe Hill's Morning Report - What is Trump's next move on Iran? The Memo: Times correction gives GOP lifeline in latest Kavanaugh controversy Politicon announces lineup including Comey, Hannity, Priebus MORE (D-Minn.) patted him on the shoulder to welcome him back as he wandered around the floor during a four-vote series on gun control that stretched over an hour.

But as the votes dragged on, Sanders didn’t gravitate to any of the friendly huddles of lawmakers. He got into an animated conversation with Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAt debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR Trump court pick sparks frustration for refusing to answer questions Klobuchar, Buttigieg find themselves accidentally flying to debate together MORE (D-N.Y.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (D-N.J.), two strong allies of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California Hillary Clinton: Voter suppression has led to 'crisis in democracy' in the US MORE, the presumptive Democratic nominee. The conversation didn’t seem especially jovial; Sanders still has not dropped out of the presidential race.

A Sanders aide said by way of explanation, “He’s not the world’s greatest backslapper.”

The aide also disputed the notion that Sanders will melt quietly back into being one of a hundred members of the upper chamber.

“Sen. Reid and Sen. Schumer said some things to indicate he’s coming back here with enhanced stature,” the staffer said, referring to Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid warns Trump 'can be reelected' Homeland Security Republican accuses Navy of withholding UFO info Poll: 47 percent back limits on Senate filibuster MORE (Nev.) and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall MORE (N.Y.), who is slated to take over as Democratic leader in 2017.

“I feel Bernie’s in a good place with my caucus, and I feel he’s in a good place with the country,” Reid told reporters after meeting in his Capitol office with Sanders earlier this month.

“He has a lot of stature here,” Reid added, noting that Sanders has chaired the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and now serves as the ranking minority member on the Budget Committee. 

In an interview with C-SPAN released Wednesday, Sanders said he wants to lead the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has jurisdiction over many of the health and educational issues he has raised during his campaign.

But it’s not clear whether Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Juul's lobbying efforts fall short as Trump moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes | Facebook removes fact check from anti-abortion video after criticism | Poll: Most Democrats want presidential candidate who would build on ObamaCare Trump's sinking polls embolden Democrats to play hardball Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall MORE (Wash.) will give up her post as senior Democrat on the panel.

“Sen. Murray has said that she won’t be making any decisions like these until after the election and after conversations with her colleagues and constituents,” said Murray spokesman Eli Zupnick.

“But she loves the work she is doing on the HELP Committee to fight for policies that help women, students, families, seniors, workers and the economy — and there is a whole lot more that she’d like to get done,” he added.

If Democrats were to recapture the Senate majority in November, Murray or Sanders would serve as chairman of the panel. Otherwise, one of them would serve as ranking member.

“Bernie seems startled that people aren’t more deferential,” observed one Senate Democrat, who noted that Sanders was waiting for colleagues to come to him instead of going to them to initiate friendly chatter. “He thinks he’s bigger than just the Senate. He’s the head of a movement and his colleagues aren’t quite there.”

The notion that the White House hopeful is holding himself higher than his colleagues is reinforced by his decision to keep his Secret Service detail, at the reported cost of $38,000 a day — a subject of some grumbling among colleagues.

Sanders pulled up to the Capitol for a vote Wednesday morning in his motorcade, with police lights flashing and sirens wailing. The pomp didn’t necessarily befit a vote on an amendment to the commerce, justice and science appropriations bill.

Senate Democrats, however, have been careful not to criticize Sanders publically or to provoke him in any way that might make it more difficult to unify the party at the Philadelphia convention.

They want the formal nomination of Clinton as their nominee to go as smoothly as possible and know they need Sanders on board as a happy warrior for their cause in the fall.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine On The Money: Trump delays increase in China tariffs until Oct. 15 | Treasury says US deficit topped trillion in 11 months | Defense spending bill advances over Democratic wall objections MORE, the chamber’s senior Democrat and Sanders’s colleague from Vermont, said Sanders’s reintegration has gone “very well.”

“People are happy to see him back,” he said.

Leahy said his wife, Marcelle, sat next Sanders’s wife, Jane, at a Senate spouses lunch this week “and it was like old times.”