Sanders seeks chance to put his stamp on government

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the self-described Democratic socialist who for years stood at the edges of Senate Democratic policy debates, is now at the center of power and on the cusp of a major policy victory that will put his stamp on government spending and policy for years to come.

Before his surprisingly successful 2016 Democratic primary campaign, Sanders for much of his legislative career in Congress was largely ignored by more moderate colleagues.

At the weekly Senate Democratic caucus lunches, Sanders would routinely stand up to speak, and colleagues would often tune him out or wave him off with joking asides.

But now Sanders, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is at least moving closer to what would be a big victory — if the $3.5 trillion budget resolution he helped craft becomes reality. Democrats are expected to try to pass the package with a simple majority vote later this year.

The budget resolution is intended to unlock a reconciliation package that would include bold reforms to expand child care and long-term home health care for the elderly and disabled. It would also fight climate change, extend the child tax credit, expand Medicare and lower the cost of prescription drugs.  

The Democratic budget package calls for spending $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years, substantially less than the $6 trillion Sanders proposed in his initial offer.

But in a major victory for Sanders, all of the initiatives he proposed in his first rough draft of the reconciliation bill are still on the table. In a feat of budgeting magic, Sanders and other members of his committee cut the overall cost of the deal announced Tuesday evening by front-loading — or in some cases back-loading — spending for the various proposals, according to Democratic senators who participated in the talks.

“Sanders is right in the middle of the action. He is no longer on the fringe of the party. He is mainstream, he is a committee chair and his views have gotten very significant representation in this budget package,” said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

Sanders has leveraged his seniority, which gives him control of the Budget Committee, as well as his relationship with President Biden, with whom he served for two years in the Senate and forged a relationship on the 2020 campaign trail.

Though Sanders and Biden had significant policy differences, Sanders steered clear of attacking Biden on a personal basis, despite the urging of some advisers.

“Sanders was always respectful of Biden. There were other candidates that went after Biden. [Kamala] Harris certainly did,” West noted. “Sanders had policy differences, but it never got personal on the campaign trail. Each has respect for the other.”

They cemented their relationship after Biden won the nomination by issuing a 110-page joint policy platform shortly before the 2020 Democratic National Convention. It was the product of six joint task forces they appointed.  

Now Sanders is seeking to cash in on that wish list from a year ago.

He and his allies are betting that once Americans begin to enjoy benefits such as the expansion of the child tax credit to $3,600 per year for children younger than 6 and $3,000 for kids 6 and older, there will be incredible pressure on Congress to keep them going after they are due to sunset.

They’re making the same bet on other program expansions that are likely to be set to short timelines to reduce their impact on the budget score, such as expanding new dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare.

“It’s going to be structured so essential programs for the first three years aren’t underfunded. And so if Americans like that we’re tackling these problems, we’ll come back and fill in years five through 10,” said a Democratic senator who helped negotiate the $3.5 trillion budget deal unveiled on Tuesday.

Even though the deal appeared to fall $2.5 trillion short of what Sanders originally proposed, he called it a framework for “the most significant piece of legislation to be passed since the Great Depression” and declared that “I’m delighted to be a part of it.”

Sanders confirmed to The Hill that the Senate reconciliation bill will be front-loaded so that all the programs he and many other Democrats want in the package will be included while keeping the cost at $3.5 trillion. That limit is a significant concession to moderates such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

“As you know, I proposed a $6 trillion budget. If you have that kind of money or more, there are things you can do and fund for longer periods of time. Because we have less money than I originally wanted, what we are going to do is fund all of the proposals, but we have to fund them up front,” he said.

“I happen to believe, personally, that all of these programs are going be very, very popular with the American people and they’ll want us to continue them in the years to come,” he added.

Sanders also plans to include legislation to extend the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act and give Medicare power to negotiate and lower the cost of prescription drugs, which will be a major pay-for in the reconciliation bill.

In some instances, programs may have a “ramp-up” time that will lessen their projected cost over the 10-year window, an aide to another Democratic senator on the Budget Committee noted.

An outline of last week’s budget deal stated that the duration of various programs, such as the expansion of the Child Tax Credit and the expansion of Medicare benefits, “will be determined based on scoring and committee input.”

Republicans have sought to portray Sanders as a wild-eyed radical, but some outside observers argue he’s used his power as budget chairman and his political mandate from strong finishes in the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries pragmatically.

Bob Borosage, the co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, said he and other progressives wanted Senate Democrats to go even bigger with the budget deal

“You know, I’m a progressive. I’m never happy. It’s never enough,” he quipped, calling for the package to do more to fight climate change. “But I think it’s a big, serious effort.”

He noted that Sanders has been careful to stay within the parameters of what’s possible in the evenly divided Senate.

“He’s been very savvy in dealing with the limits of reconciliation and the possibilities, and the front-loading is really a good example of that,” he said.  

“The front-loading makes it able to do things like extend the child tax credit and do the extension of Medicare, things that are important,” he added. 

West, of Brookings, said front-loading the cost of programs in the Democratic budget plan is a smart strategy because it will be difficult for a future Congress, even one with split party control, to turn off popular benefits.

“It’s a good bet. Once people get certain benefits, they want to keep them. It builds a constituency for a program and makes it very difficult to eliminate,” he said. 

Tags Bernie Sanders budget reconciliation Climate change Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Mark Warner

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