Senator Bernie Sanders is frustrated. He believes there is a gap between the American people who are increasingly embracing progressive values and what’s going on in Congress.

“The American people are way, way ahead on matters of the economy, war, global warming,” he says, over coffee with a small group of reporters.

He points to recent CBS and Gallop polls showing that 57 percent of Americans disapprove of the way George Bush is handling the economy; a margin of over two-to-one believe that “money should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people”; and even with the horribly phrased question, “Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?” – 49 percent believe the government should, and only 47 percent believe it should not!

Yet despite the reality of the American people – who are struggling with job losses or work that doesn’t pay the bills much less “luxuries” like education and health care – Sanders says that every day you hear Republicans on the Senate floor saying, “Thank God the economy is booming.” And, we would add, too many Democrats refuse to confront this issue head on with real action.

Consider Sanders’ National Priorities Act (which Sanders now refers to as the “New American Priorities Act”) to “expand the middle class, reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, and lower the poverty rate.” It achieves this largely through rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of American taxpayers. That’s hardly “heavy taxes on the rich” and is supported by a plurality of Americans. And yet the bill currently has zero co-sponsors. Why? Are too many Democrats living with a fear leftover from the days when the right-wing extremists like DeLay, Hastert, and Frist were controlling the debate?

What really frustrates Sanders is that there are so many opportunities to address the real concerns of Americans and create jobs, improve the environment, create a more just society.

“Take global warming,” he says. “There is nothing Congress could do that would be ahead of the American people on that. This is a moment when Americans understand that we need to radically transform our system, and we can create jobs while we do it.”

Sanders points to opportunities for solar, wind energy, and electric cars that we aren’t supporting. He cites California as a state that subsidizes installation of wind turbines by up to 50 percent. (Meanwhile, President Bush cut funds for a “weatherization” program to help low-income people make their homes energy efficient).

“America can become a leader on alternative energy as it ends it’s dependency on fossil fuels, combats global warming – and, by the way, reduces your electric bill too,” Sanders says.

Finally, Sanders is eager for Democrats to take on the issue of defense spending. “Are we really going to defeat Al-Qaeda with a missile defense system? Battleships and submarines? A staggering nuclear arsenal?” Democrats must have the courage to confront the “soft on terrorism” label by debating the most effective ways to combat terrorism. (An angry and saddened Sanders noted that despite a $600 billion defense budget the Bush Administration sent the troops to Iraq ill-equipped.)

Another obstacle to reforming the defense budget is the pressure representatives feel as the manufacturing base continues to hemorrhage jobs. (Vermont has lost 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs in the last five years). Defense bills mean jobs for constituents. Again, Sanders points to the job creation opportunities of a new energy industry – labor intensive jobs as well as research and development positions.

When you listen to Sanders you know that he gets it. He understands the pocketbook concerns of Americans. And he understands the gap that exists between where the people want America to be, and where Inside-the-Beltway folks are currently willing to go.

With reporting from Capitol Hill by Gregory Kaufmann, a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.