Bernie Sanders’ branding change

By: Anthony Adragna & Daniella Diaz; Politico Huddle

ormer presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is, at first glance, vastly different from the current chair of the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The independent Vermont senator knows the progressive ideas he campaigned on have no shot at becoming law right now. Rather than try to bulldoze the Republicans who stand in his way — as critics across the aisle openly worried before Sanders assumed the chairmanship — he’s more focused on how to achieve smaller wins via bipartisanship.

“Are we going to accomplish everything I want to accomplish? Absolutely not. If I had my druthers, we would pass Medicare for All tomorrow,” Sanders told Huddle in an interview. “I don’t look at [the chair] as a resume builder. I’m a little too old to be worrying about building my resume.”

In fact, Sanders has been at times more of a pain to the Biden administration than he has to his GOP colleagues, announcing earlier this summer that he would put a hold on certain nominees until the White House announced a plan to make prescription drugs less expensive. That dissatisfaction hasn’t ebbed with time — his hold is still in place.

“I’m disappointed at this point,” he said bluntly of the White House’s approach to prescription drug pricing. “We’re talking to the administration often. But we need some real concrete ideas about how we’re going to lower the cost of prescription drugs.”

So where does that leave the committee? Sanders says he wants to use whatever time he has to achieve tangible movement on “major health care, major educational reform, major labor reform, and we’re gonna get to pensions as well.”

Sanders gave us his candid read on where his priorities stand.

  • Unsurprisingly, his biggest hope for a breakthrough is on health care costs. Eight months in, he’s bullish on bipartisan action to revamp the primary health care system, expand community health centers and take new steps to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

    “We don’t have enough doctors, nurses, mental health providers, pharmacists, dentists. We certainly have millions of people who will wait long periods of time before they get into a doctor’s office,” he said of the need for action on primary health care. “I don’t think you can find any Republican, who’s gonna tell you ‘yeah, Bernie is wrong.’”

  • He doesn’t have a whole lot of hope for raising the minimum wage. Sanders introduced his legislation to lift the minimum wage to $17 an hour in 2018, but the panel has yet to move this year.

    “If your question is: Do I think we’re gonna be able to raise the minimum wage nationally to $17 an hour in this session of Congress? I don’t. But I felt that we have to start someplace,” Sanders said, acknowledging clear Democratic divisions on the issue. Eight members who caucus with Senate Democrats opposed a hike to $15 per hour as part of a Covid relief funding package in 2021.

  • Labor issues have limited areas of agreement. There’s bipartisan interest in expanding opportunities for job apprenticeship programs, according to Sanders. However, so far the committee advanced versions of major labor bills, including the pro-labor Protecting the Right to Organize Act, on party-line votes.

Sanders admitted he has had some setbacks, however. He had to shelve a pair of markups on drug pricing and primary care legislation as negotiations hit obstacles. But the progressive chair was quick to pivot to what he sees as early successes — including high-profile hearings with Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and major insulin manufacturers. He also noted that the HELP Committee has approved 14 pieces of legislation through the first eight months of the year, more than any previous iteration of the panel has passed in a decade.

How does running a committee compare to running for president? Sanders called the two positions “apples and oranges” but sounded content with his current gig. Holding the gavel means “being in the position on a daily basis to really impact and change and bring about concrete improvements in the lives of the American people,” he said. “You run for president, you’re trying to get elected.”