Avowed socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders has ascended to the chamber’s top ranks and is now leading the charge in implementing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and other big-spending plans, including a proposal for a $3,600-per-child benefit.
The newfound influence is delighting Mr. Sanders’ fans and outraging his critics, who say the Vermont independent is empowered by a Democratic-controlled Washington to push a far-left agenda.
“He’s an insider that understands outsiders, certainly at a better level than anybody else,” said Pete D’Alessandro, an adviser to Mr. Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. “If he wasn’t going to be president, it’s hard to see many other places that would be better for both what he believes in, the movement, and then actually getting real things done for people.”
Conservatives say Democrats are handing the keys of Mr. Biden’s early legislative agenda to the far left.
“Clearly he has planted a flag as far left as possible with the budget resolution,” said Garrett Bess, vice president of government relations and communications at Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy organization.
Mr. Sanders last week helped shepherd the Democrats’ 2021 budget resolution through the Senate chamber in an all-night session. It cleared the way for what is known as budget reconciliation, which will allow Democrats to pass Mr. Biden’s massive relief bill without needing any Republican votes.
The Biden relief proposal includes direct payments of up to $1,400 for millions of Americans, a $400 boost in weekly unemployment benefits, $15 billion to help small businesses, $170 billion for K-12 schools and colleges, $350 billion for city and state governments, and $20 billion for a national vaccination program.
In a win for the left, House Democrats rejected tightening eligibility limits for the $1,400 checks in a draft proposal released on Monday.
The proposal would provide the full $1,400 payment to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and couples making up to $150,000 per year. Some moderate Democrats had discussed reducing those limits to $50,000 and $100,000 respectively as a cost-cutting measure.
Democrats are hurrying to pass the package by mid-March, when expanded unemployment benefits from a previous package are due to expire.
House Democrats put parts of Mr. Biden’s plan into legislation on Monday, hammering out bits and pieces of the package such as a federal minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $15 per hour.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who is chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, credited Mr. Sanders with helping get the House Education and Labor Committee to include the minimum wage increase in its draft package.
Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, called her Democratic counterparts’ offer a “laundry list of left-wing proposals.”
“From a national $15 minimum wage that would destroy millions of jobs around the country, to the unnecessary and unprecedented expansion of workers’ compensation, this isn’t the ‘bold relief’ Americans need,” Ms. Foxx said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, is pushing to boost the child tax credit to up to $3,000 for a child between the ages of 6 and 17 and up to $3,600 for a child under 6. The money would be doled out in monthly installments.
The current child tax credit maxes out at $2,000 per child. Mr. Neal’s totals mirror what Mr. Biden called for in his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, and other House Democrats introduced similar legislation Monday.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, released a proposal last week that would provide a benefit of $4,200 per child to families with kids younger than 6 and $3,000 per child for kids ages 6-17.
Mr. Romney’s proposal includes cuts to other popular credits and government assistance programs, which could limit its appeal among Democrats.
The chief battle, even among Democrats, is being fought over the minimum wage.
The Congressional Budget Office, Congress’s chief budget scorekeeper, said Monday that Mr. Sanders’ recently introduced legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 would kill 1.4 million jobs, though it also would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.
“While Republicans want to save as many jobs as possible, Washington Democrats are backing Sen. Sanders’s demand to more than double the minimum wage,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Sanders said the report confirms that Democrats can leverage the fast-track budget tool to bypass a filibuster and muscle through a minimum wage hike with a simple majority in the Senate.
“We are never going to get 10 Republicans to increase the minimum wage through ‘regular order,’” Mr. Sanders said. “The only way to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour now is to pass it with 51 votes through budget reconciliation.”
The White House didn’t clarify Mr. Biden’s position on Monday.
“The president remains firmly committed to raising the minimum wage to $15,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “We’ll see what the parliamentarian decides.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, did not answer Monday when asked if he agreed with Mr. Biden’s position on the minimum wage.
Regardless of what ends up in the final package, it’s clear that Mr. Sanders will play a leading role for Senate Democrats in passing it.
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, said Mr. Sanders fits right in with the current dynamics on Capitol Hill, given Democrats’ broader lurch to the left.
“It is historically, as you know, quite a powerful committee,” Mr. Vatz said of the budget panel. “With the quasi-centrists in the Democratic Party consistently moving to appease the far-left (see Schumer, Chuck) I would see little pushback against Sanders’ agenda.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the budget committee, had driven home the message during his 2020 re-election bid that giving Democrats the keys to the Senate would elevate Mr. Sanders to committee chairman.
Mr. Graham predicted that Mr. Sanders will try to use reconciliation to pass even more far-reaching legislation.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Mr. Graham said recently on Fox News. “I’m going to be fighting Bernie Sanders as he uses the budget reconciliation process to impose the Green New Deal, higher taxes and Medicare for All.”
Mr. Bess of Heritage Acton said Mr. Sanders’ newfound power will clarify where each party stands on major issues ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“I’m not really fearful of it at all,” he said. “I actually sort of welcome the debate because I think we do very well when the Democrats and the left are standing up for more government control of people’s lives and we’re standing up for their individual choice and freedom.”
Mr. Sanders and his allies say that his status as a national political force has helped move the framework of what’s possible policy-wise and that the American people are broadly supportive of initiatives he champions such as expanding health care access and boosting the social safety net.
Mr. D’Alessandro said Republicans have been attacking Democrats as socialists for decades and it’s on the party if they can’t find people who can successfully fight off the charge.
“Maybe the people that can actually articulate it when you call them a socialist in a way that regular people understand are the better choices than the people who, when they get called a socialist, kind of get star-struck and stammer and then just get all angry and don’t have an answer of any kind,” he said.
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