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Reporter Debrief: Bernie Embarks On Midwest Tour To Drum Up Grassroots (And GOP) Support For Biden's 'Human Infrastructure' Bill

A photo of a person at a lectern with dirt in the background
Darron Cummings
/
Associated Press
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at Tippecanoe County Amphitheater, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in West Lafayette, Indiana.

As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders is taking the lead role in helping Democrats pass a $3.5 trillion budget package over the coming weeks, a package of initiatives described as the Biden Administration’s “human infrastructure bill.”

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about Sander’s new role as a congressional leader for the economic bill. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let's, first of all, keep things straight here, because it's a little confusing. There are a lot of big-ticket items coming out of Congress of late, and these are part of President Joe Biden's economic plans. This $3.5 trillion project is separate and apart from the big infrastructure bill, though, that’s making its way through Congress, right? So, what are the differences here? Help us parse through these.

Bob Kinzel: It is confusing, Mitch, because these two bills have been referred to as infrastructure bills. And one really is, and one really isn't.

Let's take a look at the first one, that $1 trillion bill. It really is an infrastructure bill, it deals with roads, bridges, water treatment plants, and expansion of broadband. It passed the Senate with some Republican support, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's now being considered in the [U.S.] House.

And then we have that big bill, that $3.5 trillion budget bill. Sometimes it's referred to as the “human infrastructure” bill, because it expands Medicare, it provides free community college tuition, it increases subsidies for child care and pre-K programs, it targets a lot of money for affordable housing programs, and it appropriates billions of dollars to fight climate change.

This is currently being considered in the Senate, and it's the bill that Sen. Bernie Sanders is so involved with.

More from VPR: Bernie Sanders' Campaign Makes $350,000 Donation To Relaunch Sanders Institute

You know, for most of his political career, I think it's fair to say you could call Bernie Sanders an outsider. He really has been working from the outside, as early as being mayor of Burlington, as a Progressive, way back in the day. But now, in his effort to move this agenda of the Democratic Party from the center to the left, he's finding himself in a new kind of role. What is this role for Bernie, now?

Mitch, it really is a big shift. You might remember when he was in the U.S. House, he wrote a book called Outsider In The House. Well, now in this new role, he's the ultimate Washington insider, taking on a very challenging role with this legislation.

Last weekend, he traveled out to the Midwest to promote what he thinks are the benefits of this $3.5 trillion bill that we just discussed: Medicare, free college tuition, affordable housing, child care, climate change.

I saw him right before he left, and I asked him what his goal was for this trip. And if it represented a new role for him:

“To talk to the people in those areas, to explain what is exactly in this bill. People understand that at a time of horrific income and wealth inequality, that the wealthiest people gotta start paying their fair share of taxes, and that we should use that new revenue to improve life for the middle class and working families.” – Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sanders says he'll be planning additional trips around the country to promote this legislation.

"People understand that at a time of horrific income and wealth inequality, that the wealthiest people gotta start paying their fair share of taxes, and that we should use that new revenue to improve life for the middle class and working families.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders

Why has Sanders been chosen to lead this effort to pass this enormous legislation?

I think there are a couple of reasons. One, he's the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, so he's very involved in the drafting of this bill, and that decision to include so many different important issues in the legislation.

And number two, I think it'd be fair to say that, over the last five years, starting with his run for president in 2016, no person has had more impact on the priorities and the overall agenda of the Democratic Party than Bernie Sanders. He has held these beliefs for decades. And after a strong showing in the 2016 presidential race, we've seen the Democratic Party move more and more towards Sanders’ position on many of these key issues.

This bill, though, it's really partisan. There are no Republicans supporting it at all. I mean, isn't this going to be a hard sell?

Absolutely. The way things stand right now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has strongly criticized the bill. He seriously doubts that any Republican — that means any Republican — in the Senate will vote for it.

But Sanders is not convinced. He told me that he thinks some Republican senators could be persuaded to vote for the bill, when they realize how much grassroots support it actually has:

“In the Congress, it is absolutely true, the Republicans are adamantly opposed to what we are trying to do. But at the grassroots level, that is not the case. Whether you're Democrat, Republican, Independent, you understand that for too long, government has paid attention to the rich and the powerful, and now it is time to pay attention to working families.” – Sen. Bernie Sanders

Even Sanders thinks it's gonna be a tough sell to get any Republican support for this bill, but he still believes it's very important to initially present this legislation in a bipartisan way.

If, though, Bernie Sanders is unable to win over any Republican support for this bill, he is going to need then all the support from all 50 Democrats in the Senate. How hard you think that will be?

It's gonna be hard, but it's not impossible. You know, what he has to do is find that middle path of having a bill that Progressives in the Senate can support, as well as the more moderate members of the Democratic Party.

So, will it require some changes to the bill? Probably. Maybe some changes to tax policy, maybe some changes to the climate change provisions.

But Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson told me that, in many ways, Sanders' whole political career has been preparing for a moment just like this one.

“Sticking to this message and his time has come. It hasn't come in terms of winning the presidency, but it has come in terms of helming the most important budget-related committee in the Senate, and being at the center of a debate over perhaps the greatest legislative initiative since the Great Society.” – Matt Dickinson, Middlebury College political science professor

Finding that middle path that all Democrats can support might be the biggest challenge that Sanders has ever faced in the Senate.

"... [Sanders'] time has come. It hasn't come in terms of winning the presidency, but it has come in terms of helming the most important budget-related committee in the Senate, and being at the center of a debate over perhaps the greatest legislative initiative since the Great Society.”
Matt Dickinson, Middlebury College political science professor

Bob, the other question is, why are the Democrats pushing to get this legislation passed over the next few weeks? I mean, what is the strategy for them with this timeline?

Well, Mitch, given their very narrow majorities in both the House and the Senate, it's really now or never for the Democrats. I mean, do they want to enter the 2022 congressional campaign touting the passage of a major achievement? Or, if this bill fails to pass, will voters decide that having these Democratic majorities in Congress really hasn't been all that effective? And then it's time for a change?

That usually happens in every midterm election, so there's no question there's a lot at stake with this legislation for the Democrats.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb and @VPRKinzel.

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