Congress was back in Washington for the first time since the midterm elections. Lawmakers, mostly in behind-the-scenes meetings, shaped the agenda for what the Senate and House will do for the rest of the year about taxes, jobs, unemployment benefits, health care, Social Security and budget deficits. In Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders brought an Obama cabinet official to Burlington to talk about affordable housing. In Florida, farm workers won a long struggle over working conditions. Sanders had played a small role in bringing the modern-day "Harvest of Shame" to national attention at a Senate hearing two years ago.
No More Tax Breaks for Rich Congressional leaders asked President Obama to get tougher with Republicans on extending tax cuts for the middle class. Sanders and others also want to save $700 billion over 10 years by ending Bush-era tax breaks for those making more than $250,000 a year. In a column published Friday by Politico, Sanders asked, "Will President Obama continue to reach out and compromise with people who have made it abundantly clear that the only agreement they want is unconditional surrender?"
Budget Deficits Leaders of a White House debt commission floated ideas for dealing with deficits, like slashing Social Security, that would punish the middle class. In response, Sanders on Thursday assembled seniors organization, labor unions, leading economists and others in to come up with ways to cut the deficit without hammering the middle class. Watch the press conference and listen to Sanders discuss Thursday's meeting on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles.
Medicare for All Sanders has long supported state waivers in the health care law because he hopes Vermont will create the first single-payer system in the nation. Sanders was interviewed by The Washington Post's Ezra Klein about a bill filed Thursday that would move by three years the date when sates may get waivers to launch their own health care initiatives. "If a state goes forward and passed an effective single-payer program, it will demonstrate that you can provide quality health care to every man, woman and child in a more cost-effective way," the senator said.
Patient Care Vermont was one of eight states selected Tuesday for a Medicare demonstration project to improve health care by basing payments to doctors and hospitals on the quality of patient care instead of the quantity of care. Sanders, a member of the Senate health committee, said, health care providers will be rewarded for improving health, not for simply providing more care. The demonstration projects are part of a 10-year, $10 billion effort by the Obama administration under the new health care law to boost the quality of medical care that Americans receive.
Fairness for Farm Workers The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange agreed Tuesday on a penny-per-pound raise and improved working conditions for the people who harvest tomatoes in Florida, where most of the nation's fresh tomato crop grows. Sanders chaired a 2008 Senate hearing on brutal working conditions, including laborers held in slavery.
Affordable Housing Sanders on Thursday introduced Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan at the Vermont Housing Conference in Burlington. Both addressed the need for greater access to affordable housing in rural states. "Vermont has been a leader in designing affordable housing for some of our nation's most vulnerable individuals and families," Donovan said. "But we also know that one size does not fit all when it comes to building vibrant, sustainable communities of opportunity in Vermont and other rural states. That's why HUD is committed to working across the administration - and with champions like Sen. Sanders - to marshal support that truly addresses the diverse challenges and opportunities our rural communities face."