Sanders makes impact in U.S. Senate (Burlington Free Press)

By Erin Kelly, Free Press Washington Writer

WASHINGTON -- When Bernie Sanders was a congressman, he railed against the Iraq war, chastised wealthy energy companies that polluted the environment and decried tax policies that favored the rich over the middle class.

Now that he's a senator, Sanders rails against the Iraq war, chastises wealthy energy companies that pollute the environment and decries tax policies that favor the rich over the middle class.

The difference? Instead of being a lone voice among hundreds, the wiry, intense 66-year-old independent from Burlington is now one of the 100 most powerful lawmakers in Washington. His phone calls are returned faster, his opinions are more sought-after, and his actions produce greater results.

"The Senate is a very different world," Sanders said in his distinctive deep-voiced Brooklyn accent in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. "You can have a real impact on making things happen."

After more than a dozen years in a Congress controlled by conservative Republicans, Sanders finds himself aligned with the Democratic majority in a chamber where the 100 senators have far greater clout than most of the 435 House members and where the tiny state of Vermont is just as formidable as the huge state of California.

"His passion is the same, his views haven't changed, but he's a lot more powerful than he was in the House," says Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has worked closely with Sanders on bills to slow global warming. "I think he's relishing the new influence he has over legislation."

Sanders' newfound clout may be strongest on energy and environmental issues. As the only member of the majority to serve on both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sanders has played key roles in crafting a successful energy bill that has become law and negotiating a global warming bill that seeks deep reductions in the power plant, factory and automobile emissions that create climate change.

"In a word, I would describe his negotiating style as insistent," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who worked with Sanders to strengthen the global warming bill during closed-door negotiations with other senators. "I like people who assert their views, and Bernie certainly does that on behalf of the things that matter. I think he reflects the Vermont value that if you believe it, fight for it."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who chairs the energy committee, said Sanders took the lead in ensuring that the energy bill included a jobs program that would train workers to build and install solar panels and other energy-efficient technology. Sanders has become the Senate's point man on the "green jobs" issue and recently spoke to the U.S. Conference of Mayors to promote the program.

"His focus is on how energy issues affect average working families," Bingaman said.

Bingaman describes Sanders' blunt style as "refreshing."

"He speaks from the heart and tells you what he thinks with no effort to camouflage his true beliefs and feelings," Bingaman said. "I think he's earned the respect of senators on both sides of the political aisle."

When Vermonters chose Sanders to replace retired Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., in 2006, some senators doubted whether the impassioned socialist known for his untamed white hair and fiery oratory would fit in with the staid Senate. Some of them confided their fears to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont's senior senator and a veteran of more than three decades in the Senate.

"I've had a number of senators on both sides of the aisle say what a pleasant surprise he has turned out to be," Leahy said, chuckling. "I had a conservative senator come up to me recently and say, 'I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm working on an amendment with Bernie Sanders, and I enjoy working with him.' "

Leahy said Sanders has impressed skeptical colleagues by coming well-prepared to committee meetings, doing his homework to understand issues and being willing to work hard.

"In our closed-door (Democratic) caucuses, he's not one of the senators who wants to speak on everything," Leahy said. "He picks his issues, and when he does speak, he has something valuable to say, and people listen."

Sanders said the Senate's culture of cordiality is disarming after his 18 years in the House, where it was impossible to know everyone by name and debate sometimes degenerated into shouting matches.

"When I was first elected, I was walking around here on the Senate side (of the Capitol) and I walked past a senator," Sanders recalled. "I said, 'Hi, Senator.' And he said, 'Hi. How are you?' I didn't think anything of it, but I got a personal note from him the next day apologizing for not knowing my name. He didn't want me to think he was being rude to a fellow senator. That was almost a metaphor for the culture of the Senate."

Still, the man who titled his 1997 autobiography "Outsider in the House," says he doesn't want to get too comfortable in the Senate's marbled meeting rooms. He goes home to Vermont nearly every weekend and continues to hold frequent town hall meetings where residents can ask him questions and tell him what's on their minds.

"The world inside the Senate is very, very far removed from the reality of people's lives," Sanders said. "I believe very strongly that a member of Congress can become very much an inside-the-Beltway creature and can very easily forget the values of people who make less than $8 an hour and can't afford to send their kids to college."

Vermonters say Sanders remains accessible and still likes to be called Bernie, which is the only moniker he has used on his campaign signs and bumper stickers for years.

"I was sitting here at my desk one day when the phone rang and the voice said, 'Mr. Torti? Bernie Sanders here,'" said Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, who has worked with Sanders on immigration issues and ensuring that Verizon Wireless' proposed purchase of Unicel will not hurt Vermont businesses and consumers.

"When I tell people from chambers in other states about the access we have to our congressional delegation, they are absolutely amazed."

Sanders' informal style has changed so little that his staff was surprised and amused when a Capitol Hill magazine, Congressional Quarterly Weekly, described him last month as wearing "dark, tailored suits and natty member-of-the-club ties" now that he has become a senator.

Sanders admits to buying one new suit, and says it has brought him such success on issues such as the energy bill and increasing funding for veterans' programs that he may break down and buy another.

"Who knows?" he joked. "With my second new suit, we may pass national health care and end the war immediately."

SANDERS' RECORD

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been in office a little more than a year. Here's a look at some of the highlights of his freshman year.

KEY VOTES

Iraq

Supported numerous bills calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and setting deadlines for withdrawal. None of those bills became law.

Opposed an amendment that denounced MoveOn.org for running negative ads against Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq. The amendment passed the Senate. The House passed a similar resolution.

Environment

Supported an energy bill that increases average fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law.

Dairy

Supported a new farm bill that would boost federal subsidies to dairy farmers. The bill passed the Senate, but a final compromise between the House and Senate has not been reached.

Economy

Supported a bipartisan economic stimulus bill that includes tax rebates for middle-class families. The bill passed both houses of Congress this month and has been signed into law.

College tuition

Supported a bill to increase Pell grants for low-income students and reduce interest rates on student loans. Congress passed the bill and President Bush signed it into law.

Children's health insurance

Supported a bill to renew and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which helps states pay for medical care for low-income children. The bill passed Congress but was vetoed by President Bush. An attempt to override the veto failed.

Immigration

Opposed ending debate on a sweeping immigration reform bill that would have provided legal status and a path to legal citizenship for the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. It also would have improved border security by hiring 20,000 more Border Patrol agents. The bill died in the Senate.

Source: Project Vote Smart


LEGISLATIVE ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Energy

The energy bill signed into law last year includes a jobs program by Sanders that would train workers to build and install solar panels and other energy-efficient technology. He also wrote a provision in the bill to create a nationwide Energy and Environmental Block Grant Program. The grants can be used by Vermont towns and counties to update building codes to require construction of energy-efficient homes and businesses, retrofit old buildings with newer technology, experiment with alternative energy, and create incentives for residents to car pool or ride buses. The bill also includes a Sanders amendment to provide grants to colleges to improve the energy efficiency of their classrooms, dorms and administration buildings.

Global warming

Sanders won support from the Senate environment committee for amending a sweeping global warming bill to include $300 billion for renewable energy over the next four decades. The money would subsidize companies that build power plants using solar, wind, geothermal or other renewable energy. It also could be used to help pay for people to install solar panels or small windmills at their homes or farms. The change is part of the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill, which passed the committee but has not gone before the full Senate.

Health care

Fought for a $77 million increase for community health centers, providing access to medical services for an additional 280,000 people. Sanders was able to play a role because he serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Veterans

As a member of the Veterans' Affairs and Budget committees, Sanders helped secure the largest-ever increase ($3.7 billion) for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Source: Sanders' Senate staff

-- Federal funds he secured for Vermont in 2007 (partial list)

-- $714,000 for the Vermont Department of Children and Families to expand youth crime prevention programs.

-- $133,950 for the Vermont Department of Public Safety for the school resource officer program.

-- $492,000 for the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority for its renewable energy from animal bio-waste project.

-- $143,518 for Addison County Dental Care of Middlebury to upgrade the facility and buy equipment for a community dental clinic.

-- $406,962 for the Vermont Technical College of Randolph Center to expand its fire science program and buy equipment to allow students to combat live fires.

-- $245,000 for an expanded visitors center at the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation of Plymouth Notch.

-- $196,000 for vans for senior centers throughout Vermont.

Source: Sanders' Senate staff