Sanders faces difficult choice on slimmed-down budget bill

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is facing a gut-wrenching decision about whether to sign off on a whittled-down budget reconciliation package that is expected to fall short of his goal to expand Medicare and empower the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

Sanders has urged his party to be as bold as it was in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dramatically expanded the size and role of the federal government, but the package that is emerging after weeks of fitful negotiations won’t come close to that ambitious call to action.  

Getting Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, on board with the scaled-down reconciliation bill is imperative for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who can’t afford a single defection within his caucus in the 50-50 Senate.

If Sanders agrees to the deal, other progressive Democrats in the House and Senate are likely to follow his lead and swallow their disappointment that the legislation no longer includes a clean electricity program and 12 weeks of paid family leave.

Sanders is also viewed as the key to unlocking progressive votes in the House for a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has been stuck in limbo while liberals wait for a deal they can accept with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in the upper chamber.

But he won’t be thrilled to embrace the emerging deal based on the current trajectory of the talks. Over the past several weeks, the package has moved further and further from his ideals. 

“I think it will be a very bitter drink, if it goes down at all. There are certain red lines that have been crossed as far as Sanders is concerned,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, who has held several fellowships in the Senate.

“Everybody has been concerned about whether or not Manchin and Sinema would support this. The question now is whether Bernie Sanders will support it,” he said.

Sanders initially wanted to spend $6 trillion on legislation that he viewed as a historic opportunity to address massive wealth disparities, expand Medicare benefits and lower the cost of prescription drugs.

He finally agreed to a $3.5 trillion spending target after intense negotiations with Schumer and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a prominent moderate, on the budget panel.

The legislation is now expected to top out between $1.75 trillion and $2 trillion and won’t expand Medicare or lower prescription drug costs in the way Sanders envisioned.

Negotiators are discussing leaving out Sanders’s proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental benefits and limiting Medicare’s power to negotiate lower prices for only a handful of drugs, instead of the broad spectrum of medications that Sanders wanted covered.

The legislation is now expected to provide only four weeks of family and medical paid leave.

Free community college, another top Sanders priority, is also on the chopping block.

Sanders has made clear for months that expanded Medicare and lower prescription drug prices are his top two priorities, and both are close to getting watered down or pushed off the table entirely.

Sanders has loudly called out the pharmaceutical industry for pouring millions of dollars into the fight to defeat prescription drug reform. He has also called out Manchin and Sinema publicly and battled Manchin behind closed doors in Democratic meetings.

Manchin, who met with Biden in Wilmington, Del., over the weekend to discuss the outlines of the package, nevertheless on Monday shot down Sanders’s push to expand Medicare.

Manchin argued that expanding Medicare benefits makes little sense when the broader program is expected to run out of money for its hospital insurance fund in 2026, according to a recent report by Medicare’s board of trustees.

“My big concern right now is the 2026 deadline [for] Medicare insolvency and if no one’s concerned about that, I’ve got people — that’s a lifeline. Medicare and Social Security is a lifeline for people back in West Virginia, most people around the country,” Manchin warned.

“You’ve got to stabilize that first before you look at basically expansion. So if we’re not being fiscally responsible, that’s a concern,” he added.

Roger Hickey, the co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group, argued that Manchin’s objections to expanding Medicare fail to recognize that the added benefits would be entirely paid for from the savings gained from authorizing the federal government to negotiate lower Medicare drug prices.

“If what you’re concerned about is spending too much money or raising the deficit, this is not going to raise the deficit,” he said.

Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who works with a variety of progressive groups, said he thinks Sanders and other progressives “will end up supporting this bill because there’s just too many good things in it for people.”

“We’re not going to get everything we want and we’re fighting hard to get everything we can get but I think we will support this bill. Everybody’s going to support this bill,” he added.

Manchin and Sinema appear to believe as well that progressives will eventually come around and support whatever package they negotiate with Biden and Schumer.

Senate Democrats have jettisoned a proposal to raise the corporate and top marginal income tax rate to please Sinema and are pushing instead a proposal to tax the unrealized capital gains of billionaires.

Sanders also wants language empowering Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of a broad array of medications. But that idea now faces getting whittled down to cover only a handful of drugs, in large measure because of opposition from Sinema.

The two-time presidential candidate dodged when asked whether he could vote for a package that doesn’t lower the prescription drug costs across the board, telling reporters, “It is beyond comprehension that there’s any member of the United States Congress who is not prepared to vote to make sure that we lower the cost of prescription drug costs.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mark Warner

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