Bernie Sanders, at a career apex, faces his biggest political test yet

By: Kevin O’Connor; VT Digger

His sound bites for the common good and against corporate greed haven’t changed. But facing the biggest test of his political career, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the stakes had never been higher.

The Vermont independent toured his home state this Labor Day weekend in support of a $3.5 trillion budget bill that, if adopted by colleagues now arguing over its price tag, would be the largest federal social spending plan in the nation’s history.

“This bill will be the most consequential piece of legislation for working people, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor since [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and the New Deal of the 1930s,” he said in Springfield on Saturday as he kicked off a five-town tour that drew more than 2,000 people there and in Brattleboro, Middlebury, Newport and St. Johnsbury.

The bill could bring life to a host of Sanders’ longtime hopes, including universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, paid family and medical leave, energy efficiency and climate change improvements, price reductions on prescription drugs and the largest-ever expansions of affordable housing and Medicare health insurance to cover dental, hearing and vision care.

“My Republican colleagues are going to tell you that Bernie’s plan is going to raise taxes,” Sanders said. “They are right. We are going to raise taxes — on the billionaires and large corporations — but nobody in America who makes less than $400,000 a year will pay a penny more.”

Sanders, having traveled the country the past two presidential elections as a candidate, spoke this time as chair of the Senate Budget Committee that’s drafting the plan. As such, the self-described democratic socialist is drawing national attention for what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls his “ascension” as “a key member of The Establishment.”

“The Vermont Independent, often depicted by the media and Republicans as well to the left of his party, is showing a conciliatory side,” Politico recently affirmed. “The 79-year-old is one of the most powerful people in Democratic-controlled Washington.”

But Sanders, set to celebrate his 80th birthday Wednesday, acknowledged he had his work cut out for him.

“Sadly, the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill will, in all likelihood, not get one single Republican vote,” he said.

And Democrats, who hold a slim majority in both chambers, have yet to unite around the plan. 

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has promised moderates a vote on a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill by the end of the month, but progressives say they won’t support it until the larger budget bill is passed.

Enter U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who reiterated last week that he’s wary of the latter bill’s current $3.5 trillion cost.

“Amid inflation, debt and the inevitability of future crises, Congress needs to take a strategic pause,” Manchin wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

Sanders knows with the Senate split 50-50, he needs every Democratic vote. Reluctant to comment on Manchin’s concerns, the Vermonter said in answer to another question, “we have internal problems in the Democratic Caucus and some members who are quite conservative.”

“It is going to be a struggle,” he continued. “I’m on the phone day after day making sure that we can pass this legislation.”

Even so, Sanders expressed cautious optimism for the plan’s approval.

“In a month, I suspect, probably at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, there will be a 50-50 tie and Vice President [Kamala] Harris will cast the deciding vote,” he said.

Sanders chastised the media for not fully explaining the bill, although he acknowledged it would be a week or two before even his colleagues saw a more finished proposal.

“This bill is in process,” he said. “People are writing it, and I’m arguing with chairmen every day.”

In the meantime, Sanders is touring both liberal and conservative areas of the country — he recently barnstormed the Republican-leaning states of Indiana and Iowa — to promote the plan.

“Get the word out what’s in the bill,” he told Vermonters. “Let’s help rally the American people and make it hard for Congress to vote against it.”

Sanders’ home swing featured local food and music, free Covid-19 vaccinations and speakers including environmental author and activist Bill McKibben in Middlebury, state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham in Brattleboro, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in Springfield.

As a fellow member of Congress, Welch acknowledged that passing the budget bill promised to be “a huge challenge.”

“The biggest thing we have going for us is that, between the moderates and progressives, there’s broad agreement on the specifics of the bill,” he said. “The dispute is about the price tag and the taxes.”

Welch, aiming to put the $3.5 trillion figure in perspective, noted the country spent nearly $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia over the past 20 years and another $5 trillion in tax cuts for wealthy individuals and institutions during the Republican presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

But Welch couldn’t say if Democratic leaders would have to lower the budget number to secure its approval.

“That’s something Bernie’s got to deal with,” he said.