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Reporter debrief: Sen. Sanders frustrated by pared-down version of "social" infrastructure bill

A photo showing Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
/
Associated Press File
On Thursday, President Biden outlined the details for a compromise social infrastructure plan, with a pared down price tag of $1.75 trillion. It leaves out some of Sen. Bernie Sanders' key provisions.

After months of negotiations, President Biden today outlined the details for a compromise social infrastructure plan, with a pared down price tag from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion.

It’s in line with the spending caps that have been advocated by two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have been able to exert a lot of influence over the bill because the Democrats need all 50 of their members in the Senate to pass the legislation.

In recent weeks, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who serves as the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee — has been frustrated by these efforts to reduce the size and the scope of this bill.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel, who has been following this unusual situation. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So Bob, it seems like the future of this bill changes on almost a daily basis as Democratic leaders scramble to find the votes for a final compromise version. And now we have the president's plan, which could still be subject to negotiations in Congress. So, can you give us an update of where things stand now?

Bob Kinzel: Sure, and as you mentioned, things are changing almost by the hour. But under President Biden's plan, here's what's in, here's what's out.

The proposal includes funds for pre-K programs, an extension of the child care tax credit, and expansion of affordable housing programs, money to help seniors receive health care services in their homes, and efforts to fight climate change.

More from NPR: Biden unveils a smaller spending framework. But all Democrats are not onboard

But some high-profile items are not in the president's plan. Most notably paid family leave, free community college tuition, allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with the drug companies, and providing dental and eye services under Medicare.

And rarely have we seen two senators — in this case Manchin and Sinema — have so much influence over a piece of legislation.

Now, Sen. Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee — and he's directly involved, because this bill is happening through the budget reconciliation process — he's watched this process unfold and it's clearly frustrated him to see the power that Manchin and Sinema have had. So, he announced this week that his top two priorities, both involving Medicare, must be in the final version of the bill.

“So to my mind, any serious reconciliation bill must include real Medicare negotiations with the pharmaceutical industry to lower the cost of prescription talks,” Sanders said.

Now Henry, it turns out that a number of Sanders' top priorities did not make the cut, most notably negotiating Medicare drug prices, which he feels very strongly about, and dental and eye services for Medicare. Now, he's indicated he would like to see Congress make further changes to this bill. So, it seems that at this time, everything is still in flux.

Yeah. Well, so why are those two Medicare provisions so important to Sen. Sanders?

Bernie has been working on these two issues for many years; he feels very strongly about them. And I spoke this week with Linda Fowler, who is the professor emeritus of government at Dartmouth College, about why Sanders decided to draw the line on these issues.

“This is part of the key message that he brought to two presidential primaries," Fowler said. "And it looks like maybe this bill, he was finally going to get something that he's advocated for years. And so, to see the Medicare benefits whittled away, and maybe nothing for prescription drug expansion, certainly must be very frustrating.”

Henry, the president’s compromise bill does include hearing services as part of Medicare coverage. I've got to believe that Sanders is going to continue to fight for his other Medicare priorities.

OK. And so what kind of leverage does Sanders have to save those Medicare priorities? What options does he have at this point?

Henry, he really doesn't have many. I mean, he could say that he won't vote for the bill unless it includes the Medicare changes. There are a number of House Progressives who might feel the same way, and that might be a short-term strategy that they take.

But professor Fowler questions if Sanders really wants to be the person responsible for sinking what is turning out to be the most important part of President Biden's agenda:

“The real question is: Is he willing to tank not just this bill, but it also dooms the bill in the House that was passed by the Senate six weeks ago? The public infrastructure bill, roads, bridges and so forth that the Senate passed — that's a pretty big thing to take on."

So Henry, Sanders and the House Progressives are in a very tough spot. I think their best hope is that they can restore some of this money for the bill in the days ahead.

And so Bob, this dilemma for Sanders seems kind of similar to a position he found himself in 11 years ago, when the Senate was considering President Obama's Affordable Care Act. Is there anything we can learn about how Bernie Sanders handled that situation?

You know, Henry, I think there is. Remember at that time, the Democrats also needed unity to pass that bill. And this was the situation: Sanders had been a long-term sponsor of legislation that creates a single-payer health care system around the country, and he was not very enthusiastic about the Affordable Care Act at all. But he did support it, after the Democrats added billions of dollars for an expansion of the federal community health center program. That's a program that he is very strongly backed over the years.

This year, he wants a number of programs that strengthen Medicare. And the big question is, will he be successful in restoring some of this money?

And so, looking forward, where do things go from here?

Boy, I wish I had a crystal ball on this one, Henry. It is so hard to tell. It's like a game of high-stakes poker. But in the end, I just have a hard time believing that the Democrats won't be able to reach an agreement on this legislation.

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

It may take a couple of days; it may take a couple of weeks. But when you consider the alternative, if they fail to pass these two infrastructure bills, the social and the physical plans, then they're going to be feeding right into this notion that the Democrats are disorganized, dysfunctional, and can't pass anything, even when they have a majority in both the House in the Senate. And that sure doesn't seem to be a winning message going into the 2022 congressional campaign.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Bob Kinzel @VPRKinzel.

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