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Politico writes that Senator Bernie Sanders deserves credit for key features of the $1.9 trillion Biden plan and for encouraging Biden not to compromise with moderate Republicans who offered a $900 billion plan.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) played the most dramatic role during the passage of the Covid relief bill into law. But the senator with the greatest imprint on the script itself was his colleague on the opposite end of the Democratic ideological spectrum: Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Sanders’ influence on the most ambitious piece of domestic legislation in a generation is evident in several places, particularly the guaranteed income program for children, the massive subsidies for people to buy health care, the sheer size of the $1.9 trillion measure and the centerpiece of it — direct checks to working Americans.
But the specifics of the law tell only part of the story. The calculus by which the legislation was crafted and passed — a belief that popular bills endure more than bipartisan ones — is quintessentially Sanders. And it raises a thought-provoking question: Has any elected official in American history had such a profound influence on a major political party without ever formally joining it?
Six years ago, Democrats were in a different place. Austerity politics were still gripping parts of the party. The ambitious agenda items were more social than economic: immigration reform, gun control, police reform after Ferguson. And in a few months time, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee would make serious inroads among the white working class voters who had served as the bedrock for Democrats for decades.
Within that landscape, Sanders was a throwback: a labor-oriented big-government liberal who seemed like more of a gadfly than a serious player. He was known for passing little-noticed amendments but also found a knack for making well-noticed public spectacles, often as acts of disagreement with the Obama White House on items like domestic surveillance laws and the extension of the Bush tax cuts. As his following picked up, a depiction of him emerged as an ideologue who valued ideological purity over progress and was content to undermine a historic president in the service of it.
That never jibed with reality. Though admittedly stubborn, Sanders voted often for major bills that fell short of his ambitions (Obamacare), cut deals that went against his ideology (VA reform), and made sure his public shows of opposition didn’t actually turn into catastrophes for the Democratic Party. When his legislative white whale (a $15-an-hour minimum wage hike) was nixed by the parliamentarian a few weeks back, he could have insisted that his fallback option be given a vote. He didn’t, calculating that it wasn’t worth jeopardizing or delaying the entire enterprise over the minimum wage. As one Sanders aide described it: “He knows when to throw down and when it’s time to get s— done…”
The Democratic Party today holds razor-thin majorities in both chambers and is helmed by a president who might have been the most moderate of the 20 or so candidates who ran in the primary. And yet every single member — save one in the House — voted for a nearly $2 trillion deficit-financed bill that sends money without strings attached to the poorest Americans, all while embracing a unionization effort targeting the biggest e-commerce giant in the world and entertaining a $4 trillion follow-up bill to revamp American infrastructure that will likely include tax hikes on the rich. If Sanders was just a touch more extroverted, we’d likely see signs of euphoria in Burlington.
Of course, credit (or, if you’re so inclined, blame) isn’t his alone. The enlarged child tax credit has been the project of countless Democrats, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). The bill’s $86 billion bailout for multi-employer pensions was spearheaded by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). And none of it would have been possible without twin Senate wins in Georgia or Biden’s insistence that he needed to go big out the gate.
But, it’s worth recalling, that Biden easily could have charted a bipartisan approach instead. In early December, Manchin and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced the outlines of a $900 billion relief bill of their own, with a splashy Washington Post op-ed framing it as the logical step toward ideological comity. Five other senators in the Democratic caucus were on board with the idea.
Sanders rejected the proposal out of hand. His move sent an early signal to the White House that it would have to scramble for votes even on a center-of-the-road approach. Weeks later, the Georgia election happened, Biden stuck to the script that bigger was better, and the pieces of a $1.9 trillion package — upon which the success of the Demcratic Party now hangs — fell into place.