Sanders in the Senate: An outsider plays the inside game
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators often talk about Bernie Sanders in diplomatic tones, the way relatives discuss a certain family member with hushed pause. He’s passionate, they say politely. Independent. Or, just Bernie being Bernie.
The senator returns the favor at the weekly Democratic luncheons. Sanders addresses his Senate colleagues with the high-volume urgency of his campaign rallies. One senator said Sanders essentially yells at them.
It’s an awkward if familiar relationship in the otherwise insular world of the Senate. One that’s often infuriating but also at times politically strategic. It's the dynamic between the democratic socialist from Vermont, who never officially joined the Democratic Party, and the senators he spends his days with in Washington as he wages a revolution for the presidency.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant party leader, said what voters expect from Sanders on the campaign trail is “verbatim exact” with what senators have heard for the past decade in the Senate.
“That’s the one thing that stands out when it comes to Bernie: He’s never changed, in terms of why he’s here and what he wants to achieve,” Durbin said. “I think that’s part of his appeal -- particularly to young people who like this kind of commitment, constancy of purpose.”
His has been an approach that has stuck to fixed positions and yielded mixed results. Sanders' legislative achievements are notable but few. He holds a seat at the party leadership table, but so do many others. The compromises he has struck — on “Obamacare” or reforms at Veterans Affairs — are not the revolutionary kind that wow the campaign trail but more incremental changes. He has a grumpy, blunt persona, which longtime colleagues have come to expect.
For Democrats straining to unseat President Donald Trump, retain majority control of the House and win back the Senate, the prospect of Sanders at the top of the ticket has gone from a curiosity to a code-red reality check.
His liberal proposals for “Medicare for All,” free college and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal cause political jitters. Uncertainty abounds: Will the Sanders brand of liberalism tap a new strain of energized Americans to the polls or repel the very voters Democrats need to seize power? Would Sanders at the top of the ticket help or hurt Democrats in the Senate? “I don’t know the answer to that,” Durbin said.
Sanders arrived in Washington as a congressman, serving 15 years in the House before sweeping into the Senate on the 2006 election that delivered Democrats the majority.
He has always been something of a Senate loner, espousing a philosophy beyond where most Democrats stand politically. He's not quite an outsider, like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, who were Washington unknowns when they riled their Republican colleagues with tactics that left them alienated at times with few friends. But as Sanders strides through the halls, grunting curmudgeonly responses to greetings, his white hair flying about, he is definitely an outlier, albeit one now closing in on the party’s nomination.
His rivals, including some of his fellow senators, warn that Sanders is ill-prepared to turn the revolution into governance. They scoff at his legislative record and question what he has to show for his time in office.
“Bernie, in fact, hasn't passed much of anything,” charged former Vice President Joe Biden, himself a former senator, at last week’s debate.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar boasts of the 100 bills she has marshaled into law. Even Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Sanders ally, declared on the debate stage that she would make the better leader.
The congressional record shows that Sanders sponsored 678 pieces of legislation in the Senate, and only two bills became law, one renaming a Vermont post office after Reconstruction-era congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. But that’s not the full story of Sanders’ legislative record.
Sanders' signature achievements are not necessarily campaign slogans. He secured Community Health Center provisions in the Affordable Care Act as a compromise, of sorts, after having tried unsuccessfully to include a Medicare-like public option for consumers who buy their own health insurance.
With Arizona Sen. John McCain, Sanders used his perch as chairman of the veterans committee to pass the veterans' choice bill into law, a congressional response to the wait crisis at the Veterans Affairs facilities that enabled veterans to see private health care providers.
Last year, Trump vetoed legislation to end the U.S. role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, yet it remains a watershed moment as Congress for the first time invoked its authority under war powers to put a check on the White House. Sanders was a leader on the bill, which laid the groundwork for similar efforts to try to halt military action in Iran.
Allies say Sanders is pushing the party toward policies many Democrats support in their hearts, if not on paper, and his accomplishments show how outside activism can yield results inside the Capitol — an outsiders' insider. Senators say he is simply acting as they would expect.
“He actually truly believes in what he advocates,” said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a former campaign chairman for Senate Democrats. “It would not have been my choice to put socialist democrat in front of anybody’s name at the top of the ticket. But he did it because he believes in it.”
Asked last week if Sanders would be easier for Trump and Republicans to beat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demurred.
"I think Republicans speculating about which Democratic candidate will be easiest to beat would be a bit foolish," the Kentucky Republican said. "I'll leave it up to the Democrats to pick."
One of Sanders’ breakout moments came in December 2010, when President Barack Obama was poised to approve an extension of expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts, including those for wealthier Americans. Democrats were smarting after midterm election losses that delivered the tea party Republicans to the House.
Sanders strode onto the Senate floor and delivered “The Speech,” as it would later be reprinted as a book title, an hourslong lecture on income inequality and the struggles of working-class Americans that resonates today on the campaign trail.
He cruised to reelection in Vermont with 71% of the vote in 2012, as one of the Senate’s most favored incumbents. From there, he would launch his failed 2016 presidential run — and a movement.
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer counts Sanders as a friend. They share an alma mater, James Madison High School in Brooklyn — Sanders running track, Schumer playing basketball — and quick, blunt New York dialect.
Schumer would invite the new senator out for plates of Chinese food at Hunan Dynasty, a Hill landmark, and brought Sanders into his widening leadership team after the 2016 election. When Trump and Republicans launched efforts to repeal Obamacare, Schumer called on Sanders to galvanize opposition across the country, according to a person familiar with their relationship but unauthorized to discuss it who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Schumer and Sanders stood together at the Obamacare event in Michigan, the insider relying on the outsider to change the dynamics under the dome. Key Republicans helped turn back the bill that summer, a stunning defeat for Trump and McConnell.
One former Trump rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, said he disagrees with much of what Sanders is proposing, particularly his affinity with Cuba. But he likes Sanders — they worked together on a veterans bill — and knows his resume is broader than a list of bills passed.
“I just don’t think that’s what people are voting on this election,” Rubio said. “We’re experiencing what by all accounts should be a time of happiness -- our economy’s growing, wages are climbing, economic growth is significant — yet everyone seems to be really upset. And so you’ve found an expression of that in this campaign.”
Of Sanders, he said: “He's the most unorthodox person in the race, and we're in an era that doesn’t reward orthodoxy.”
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