Senator Bernie Sanders wants the public to know that the fight to pass Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending bill isn’t just about meeting the needs of working-class families and combating the climate crisis—it’s about “the future of American democracy” and whether oligarchs will be successful in defeating a popular agenda.
In a pen-and-pad briefing with reporters on Friday, Sanders focused on the “wealthy and powerful special interests” spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to defeat the bill, urging the Capitol Hill press corps to reconsider horse-race coverage and instead think about what’s really at stake.
“Do you live in a democratic society?” Sanders said. “What kind of society are you living in, where you have three paid lobbyists for every member of the United States Congress? And you got lobbying firms led by former Democratic leaders, Republican leaders working overtime to try to defeat this legislation.”
And then, he added, you have the fossil fuel industry, the health care industry, and the wealthiest people in the country spending millions to defeat it.
He continued to criticize Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona for obstructing legislation that the American people, the president, and an overwhelming majority of the Democratic caucus want. When asked if he needs to sit down in a room with Manchin and Sinema to negotiate a deal that makes everyone happy, Sanders replied, “I don’t know if you’re a movie writer—this is not a movie.”
Sanders also reiterated that he will not accept anything less than $3.5 trillion for the budget package.
President Joe Biden has floated a plan with a price tag as high as $2.3 trillion, while Manchin has said $1.5 trillion is his limit—a figure the Congressional Progressive Caucus has called a nonstarter. So Democratic leaders are in the process of deciding which of the country’s most vulnerable people will be thrown under the bus, as they weigh dropping or drastically cutting a range of climate and social safety net programs from their spending package to try to placate two senators.
To bring the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill down—and that $3.5 trillion figure represents a combination of spending and tax cuts over the course of 10 years—the White House is trying to figure out what Democrats should slash first: billions to alleviate homelessness, universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, dental benefits for seniors, free school lunches, and so on. Some initiatives may be dropped entirely, and many of the social programs Democrats campaigned on are in danger of being means-tested into oblivion.
Manchin, a coal baron who represents one of the poorest states in the country, opposes his party’s reconciliation on the pretext of avoiding an “entitlement society.” But his “entitlement” rhetoric comes as he fights to preserve tax giveaways to the oil and gas industry, an industry to which he owes much of his personal and professional wealth. The West Virginia senator is reportedly demanding that his colleagues pick just one of the top three priorities in the spending bill—an expanded child tax credit, paid family medical leave, or subsidies for child care. Sinema, on the other hand, has been much less transparent about the specific policies she does and does not support. But Sanders refuses to go down any further on the spending total. “I think we do the programs that we have outlined and we fund them generously,” he said. “That’s not a choice.”
Sanders, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, first proposed a plan to spend $6 trillion over a decade—a package that included much of Biden’s agenda. In late March, when the Biden administration was preparing to unveil its infrastructure plan, progressives and environmental groups were calling for $10 trillion in spending over the next decade for climate action alone.
Asked if he’s worried that Democrats will ultimately walk away without passing anything at all, Sanders said he hopes that’s not the case, but there is a chance. “Is there a possibility, a horrible possibility, which would be so terrible for this country, that because two people refuse to do what 96 percent of the caucus wants, that nothing will happen?” he said. “There is that possibility, I think it’s a minimal possibility, but that possibility exists.”