The Senate put the parliamentary gears in motion for votes on raising the minimum wage and restoring long-term unemployment benefits. A Senate hearing on Thursday looked at why road construction projects and the jobs they generate are in jeopardy this construction season. After a rocky rollout, there was a surge in signups for Obamacare. Sen. Bernie Sanders said the United States should join major countries in the rest of the world that offer less expensive more effective universal health care. In a Senate floor speech on Thursday, Sanders spoke out against the rising political power of the wealthy in America.
The Billionaire Party “We have a nation in which the economics and politics are controlled by a handful of billionaire families, [where] it doesn't matter what party is in power because the real power rests with a billionaire class,” he said. The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, Sanders argued, “allows the super wealthy to spend as much as they want on elections,” so the “billionaire party is now in fact the major political force in this country ... led by people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson.” Watch the speech
Health Care The White House announced on Thursday that more than 6 million Americans signed up for private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The enrollment surge came after months of technical snafus kept many people from picking a plan online. Sanders voted for the new health care law, but he said on Wednesday that he hopes Vermont will lead the nation toward a less expensive, more efficient single-payer, Medicare-for-all system. He said the reliance on private insurers in the U.S. wastes billions of dollars on bureaucracy and pointless paperwork. Watch MSNBC
Roads and Jobs The federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to run dry by July. Sanders said road and bridge projects planned for this construction season may be cancelled unless Congress replenishes the fund. Vermont Agency of Transportation Deputy Secretary Sue Minter told a Senate panel on Thursday that a cutoff in federal transportation funding would hurt jobs in Vermont. She testified before a U.S. Senate committee at Sanders’ invitation. Watch hearing highlights
Long-Term Jobless The Senate is poised to vote in the coming week on a bill to provide retroactive unemployment benefits for more than 2 million Americans who have been out of work the longest. The benefit checks were cut off last Dec. 28 when the federal program expired. “It’s a moral issue and it’s an economic issue,” Sanders told radio host Ed Schultz on Wednesday. States provide unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. In the past, emergency federal benefits -- $287 a week on average -- have kicked in for up to 47 additional weeks. When the emergency program lapsed late last year, 1.3 million people lost those benefits. Since then, about 72,000 people a week have had benefits cut off.
Minimum Wage A proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour is slated for a Senate vote in the coming week. Sanders is a cosponsor of the bill. It’s the first item in an agenda that will focus on ensuring that every American who works hard has a fair shot to succeed. Proposals to create jobs, make college affordable and protect Medicare also are part of the “Fair Shot for Everyone” initiative.
Food Stamps Taxpayers could save $4.6 billion a year on food stamps if the federal minimum wage is raised to $10.10 per hour. That’s because paying workers a higher minimum wage will reduce their need for federal assistance, creating huge savings for the taxpayer-funded program. The link was drawn in new report by the Center for American Progress and the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Read more
An Ugly Moment “What kind of nation are we when we give tax breaks to millionaires but we can’t take care of the elderly and the children?” Bernie asked. He was reacting to a new report out on Monday that more than 18 percent of Americans last year struggled to afford food. Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, want deeper cuts in food stamps that mostly help feed children and seniors. We are living in “a very ugly moment,” Bernie told the Rev. Al Sharpton. Watch MSNBC
Spying on Americans President Obama on Thursday formally asked Congress to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records. At the same time, however, the administration asked a secret court to reauthorize the domestic spying program for another three months. “The president should end that program now, not 90 days from now,” Sanders said. Sanders voted in 2001 against the so-called Patriot Act and later opposed reauthorizing the law that has been used to justify the massive surveillance operation. “I have long been concerned about out-of-control intelligence agencies,” he said. “Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies must be given the tools they need to protect us, but that can be done in a way that does not sacrifice our constitutional rights. If we allow the government to see all of what we read, what we watch and what we hear, then we cannot be called a free society.”