Bernie Sanders in line to chair influential Senate committee on health, education and labor

By: Lola Duffort; VT Digger

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is expected to take over as chair of one of the chamber’s most influential policy committees.

The current chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is leaving her post to take over the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations — a job currently held by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is retiring at the end of his term in January.

Per Senate custom, Sanders’ seniority puts him next in line to chair what’s often called the HELP committee. His office confirmed on Thursday that he wants the job.

“As chairman of the committee, he will focus on universal health care, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, increasing access to higher education, and protecting workers’ rights on the job,” Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Sanders, said in a statement.

Sanders has served on the HELP committee since he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2007. He currently chairs the panel’s subcommittee on primary health and retirement security. The move would mean Sanders will have to give up his chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee.

None of the sweeping reforms, including Medicare for All, that Sanders has called for in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors for decades are a remote possibility with the U.S. House under Republican control. But the HELP helm will nevertheless give Sanders an important bully pulpit from which to advance his policy agenda.

Sanders wouldn’t be the first senator from Vermont to chair HELP. Jim Jeffords, who preceded Sanders in the upper chamber — first as a Republican and later as an independent — also chaired the influential panel, and in 1999 even gave it its current name.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who will succeed Leahy in the new year, will have little say in his committee assignments as a freshman senator. He told VTDigger after the midterms he planned to ask leadership what “realistic options” would look like, although he expressed confidence that by forging “bipartisan relationships,” he could make his mark.

“Whatever committees I’m on, I’m going to have an opportunity to be a very productive member of the Senate on behalf of Vermont,” he said.