Sanders flexes on Biden, seeking to shape Democratic agenda
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is starting to flex his political muscle and become more outspoken on a number of issues after months of mostly keeping his head down and being a team player.
Sanders has trashed removing the $10,000 ceiling on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, which has been a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and has put pressure on President Biden over foreign policy with his sharp criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The 2020 presidential candidate, who finished second to Biden in the Democratic primary, accused Netanyahu of cultivating a culture of “racist nationalism.”
Sanders is also throwing his considerable political weight around on domestic issues, seeking to put his fingerprints on the infrastructure and social spending measures proposed by the White House.
The Vermont senator is intent on including a provision to expand Medicare in the infrastructure package even though Biden wants to avoid picking a fight with hospitals and drug companies. Sanders is also running out of patience with the pace of bipartisan infrastructure talks and says the Senate needs to move a massive package as quickly as possible.
In speaking out, Sanders is acting as a counterweight to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a centrist representing a state that is conservative. Manchin has worked to moderate Democratic proposals, and he has enormous power in a Senate equally divided between the two parties.
Sanders is the voice of progressives who want to expand the infrastructure bill by adding ambitious health insurance reforms to it.
While Manchin is interested in giving time for bipartisan talks to flourish, Sanders wants Biden and his party to move quickly to enact the biggest reforms possible.
The more outspoken role is a departure in some ways for Sanders, who adopted a lower profile during the homestretch of the 2020 election and during the early months of Biden’s transition and first 100 days in office.
But with no clear Senate Democratic plan yet for passing Biden’s infrastructure agenda, for moving a sweeping election reform package through the Senate or for bringing gun violence legislation to the floor, Sanders is starting to flex some muscle.
“He’s the left pressure,” said Faiz Shakir, a Sanders adviser. “Manchin’s the right pressure, [Sanders] is the left pressure. You can’t just let [Manchin] be the one who’s like ‘Cut this, cut that,’ without being on the other side making the argument for expanding it.”
Progressive activists are applauding Sanders for becoming more outspoken, and for asking why Schumer isn’t putting more pressure on Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), another key moderate, to line up with the rest of the Democratic caucus.
Some point out that progressives such as Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) haven’t been the problem in moving Biden’s agenda, despite expectations.
“This is not the way people expected the progressive wing of the party to work with Biden. They expected us to be the problem, it turns out Manchin and Sinema, the moderates, are the problems,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of Democracy for America, a grassroots progressive advocacy group.
Sanders has signaled growing impatience with the dragging negotiations between Manchin and a small group of moderate Senate Republican and Democratic colleagues over a scaled-down infrastructure bill, which doesn’t seem close to any sort of deal yet.
“We’ve talked about infrastructure for decades and the infrastructure only gets worse,” Sanders told The Hill. “There’s an understanding that we’ve got to do it. We can create good-paying jobs, and we will do it. If Republicans don’t want to come along, we’ll do it without them.”
“It has to be done as soon as possible,” he added.
The Vermont senator said his top focus is to expand the scale and scope of the bill by adding provisions to expand Medicare and lower the cost of prescription drugs, even though Biden pointedly left those two proposals out of his plan.
“Right now, we’re working on making sure that we have Medicare included into the reconciliation bill,” Sanders said. “I think we’re making some progress. I think the issue is whether we have the courage to take on the pharmaceutical industry, which the American people want us to do.”
“It’s a fight that has to be fought because we have to lower prescription drug costs and we need the money to do negotiations to do other things,” he added.
On the tax issue, Sanders recently fired a warning shot at Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when he told Axios that repealing the SALT cap would send “a terrible, terrible message.”
And he published a scathing guest essay in The New York Times last week declaring the United States “must stop being an apologist for the Netanyahu government.”
He urged the Biden administration to “change course and adopt an evenhanded approach” in responding to growing violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Shakir said Sanders in the first part of the year was focused on making sure Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package wasn’t chopped down significantly.
“During that phase, even centrist Democrats and Republicans wanted to cut that number down from $1.9 billion to $1.2 billion,” Shakir recounted. “Now that that concluded, there’s this next phase of making sure that we don’t dither for too long and continue to deliver on the promises that the president has made.
“You will see Sen. Sanders push for and expand the scope of what is possible,” he added. “But we also know that now that you’ve got 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, a slight majority in the House and a president who is preparing to govern in a progressive way, the most powerful weapon we have is to say, ‘Hey, hold on the things you want to do.’ ”
“Time is our enemy and delay is our enemy,” Shakir said. “He will and does get impatient with people who want to slow down the process and say there’s a lot of time left because he doesn’t feel that way.
“He’s pushing his colleagues and the administration to make sure we don’t wait too long on moving to a second reconciliation package, especially as Republicans demonstrate they aren’t eager for a robust progressive agenda to pass.”