Bernie Sanders is shifting into a new phase of his legacy-defining work on Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan: Protecting it from members of his own party and selling it to the public.
Sanders understands that there will be changes to his vision given the party’s slim majorities in each chamber, now that the blueprint is approved. But as Senate moderates propose chipping away at the $3.5 trillion price tag, he’s in no mood to haggle on the top line number.
“I already negotiated. The truth is we need more,” Sanders said in an interview on Wednesday, ahead of a swing into conservative parts of the Midwest to stump for his transformative policy blueprint. “The needs are there. This is, in my view, the minimum of what we should be spending.”
The longtime progressive advocate is pursuing his own two-track strategy as his party seeks to pass both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Democratic-only spending bill this fall and send them to President Joe Biden’s desk. Sanders is trying to sell Republican voters on Democrats’ agenda in hopes of increasing popular support for the historic spending push while also coaxing his own moderate Democratic colleagues to support one of the largest federal expansions of benefit programs ever.
It’s a tricky balancing act for what’s shaping up to be a pivotal few weeks for Sanders, a two-time presidential candidate who Republicans like to assert is essentially running the party’s policy operation. Yet Sanders is eager to meet Republicans where they are, literally.
The Vermont senator is barnstorming conservative Iowa and Indiana this weekend to sell Democrats’ sweeping visions of hiking taxes on the wealthy and corporations while expanding health care coverage, taking climate action and increasing access to education. He’s also expected to host an event in Michigan with progressive Democrat Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
“I understand that budget chairpersons, historically, have done their work within the Beltway in D.C. I think really the function of a budget chairman is to get out among the people,” Sanders said. “What we are proposing in this budget is going to be enormously popular.”
Yet as he seeks to increase support among working class Republicans across the country, Sanders also must ensure he can keep his fellow 49 Democratic Caucus members on board in D.C. It’s part of an inside-outside game Sanders has worked on for years — in part with his fellow Brooklynite-turned-majority leader.
“He’s great at coming up with ideas and getting a movement behind it, but now he's proven to be a really good legislator as well,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “We've worked so closely together, we probably talk four or five times a day.”
Sanders said if he could, he would travel to all 50 states this fall to make his case. And he did not rule out West Virginia and Arizona, home to the Senate’s two most conservative Democrats.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are the most obvious obstacles to implementing Sanders’s agenda, with Sinema reiterating her opposition to a $3.5 trillion spending bill earlier this week. Though Sanders wrote the budget and is one of the most public faces of both the spending bill and the effort to increase taxes on the wealthy, he said the massive spending bill will pass because most of the bill is based on Biden’s jobs and family plans.
“Democrats have a very slim majority in the House. We have no majority in the Senate. That’s it. It is 50/50,” Sanders said. “Trust me, there are a lot of differences in the Senate among the Democrats. But at the end of the day, every Democrat understands that it is terribly important that we support the president's agenda. And most of these ideas came from the White House.”
Sanders and most Democrats believe the $3.5 trillion number is indispensable because, combined with the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, it essentially implements all of Biden and Sanders’ priorities, including Medicare expansion and continuing popular child tax credits. But because of Sinema’s entrenched position, Manchin’s worries about inflation and softer dissent among a few other centrists, some Democrats are less sure their $3.5 trillion plan can survive both chambers’ reed-thin majorities intact.
“Kyrsten and Joe get the most attention, but they’re not alone in wanting that number to be lower,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “My hope is that we're not making decisions based on an arbitrary number. That we're looking at the programs we need to fund and the programs that we don't need to fund.”
To Sanders, there’s nothing that can be put on the chopping block, and he declined to entertain how he'd proceed if programs are cut. He said “every single thing” in the plan is vital, previewing an argument he will make at town halls in Indiana and Iowa this week. He said he expects to see a significant percentage of GOP voters support his proposal’s specifics, ranging from the $300 monthly child tax credit to universal pre-K to Medicare benefit expansion.
He also said that if Democrats can follow through on their plan, it will increase their chances in what’s shaping up to be an increasingly dicey midterm election.
Republicans “understand that what we're doing is enormously popular, that the American people are sick and tired of the government working overtime for the wealthy and the powerful.” Sanders said. “The contrast is pretty clear. And we're gonna win that.”
In a rare bit of bipartisan agreement, Republicans are eager for the debate with Sanders. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it on Fox News on Tuesday: “Bernie Sanders may have lost the nomination but he won the war in the Democratic Party.”
“Having Socialist Bernie Sanders at the wheel of the Democrats’ entire domestic agenda is a gift to Senate Republican campaigns everywhere,” said Katharine Cooksey, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm.
The partisan contrast will be stark in the coming days. After 19 Senate Republicans supported the bipartisan infrastructure bill, all 50 will end up voting against the reconciliation bill.
That leaves any single Democratic senator with veto power over the whole plan, a dynamic that played out in March when Manchin sought to team up with Republicans to narrow unemployment benefits on Democrats’ $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue bill. Yet no Democrat ever seriously threatened to tank that effort, and no one is signaling they’d take down Democrats’ social spending bill.
What’s more, Sanders has shown flexibility in recent weeks: His initial budget proposal was $6 trillion, but after haggling with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) he came down to $3.5 trillion. And after criticizing the bipartisan infrastructure bill and threatening to vote against it, he supported it to keep Democrats’ fragile coalition moving forward.
At the moment, Sanders says the $3.5 trillion top line is “non-negotiable.” But his ability to work within his caucus’s confines makes Sanders more confident the bill will pass in the end after an intense fall work period.
“There are nuances and differences. I hear them as the Budget Committee Chairman. Every day this one is worried about this, there's one who wants more on public transit,” Sanders said. But “every member of the caucus understands that … this is transformative for the American people, it is the right thing to do. And it is politically popular.”
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