The only self-described socialist in Congress may be disconnected from his colleagues in many ways, but Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is convinced he understands the average American better than most anyone on Capitol Hill.
In an interview about his role as one of 22 senators on the House-Senate conference committee trying to hammer out an agreement on the federal budget, Sanders — with obvious understatement — is quick to point out that his views are different on a host of issues.
What's a bigger problem, he asks, youth unemployment or the fact that Social Security will be insolvent in 20 years? To him the answer is obvious, with unemployment rates in double digits for America's young people.
"Is that a crisis?" asks Sanders, 72. "It's a horrendous crisis. It means you have millions of kids out there who are never getting their feet on the ground in terms of a career. You know what that means in their lives? That is a crisis today."
The long-term solvency of Social Security is a concern, but addressing it is not as important as maintaining the social safety net, Sanders says. He cited a National Journal poll showing that 76 percent of Americans don't want Social Security benefits cut.
"Everything that I am telling you is what the vast majority of the American people believe, including many tea-party people," he said. "So around here it's conventional wisdom: 'Oh yeah, I guess we should cut Social Security.' It's not what the American people want."
That view forms the bedrock of his opposition to any entitlement cuts. While the budget put together by House Republicans calls for turning Medicaid into block grants for the states and Medicare into allocations based on income that could be used for private insurance as well, Sanders is adamant that he will oppose GOP-favored reforms even if it means getting support for revenue increases.
"I will not support a quote-unquote tradeoff between revenue and cuts in entitlement programs," he said. "I am adamant that Social Security has been the most successful antipoverty program in history of this country."
Sanders's position contrasts sharply with the tone struck by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray opened the conference on a conciliatory note, underlining the need for compromise during her public statements. "I believe this bipartisan budget conference offers us the opportunity to rebuild some trust, find a path to compromise, and work together," she said.
It's not that Sanders opposes compromise. He says he could back closing certain tax loopholes, but it's the step after that would give him pause. Where Republicans want to pay down the nearly $17 trillion in debt and more than $600 billion in deficit, Sanders wants to use some of that money for creating jobs, he says.
Still, Sanders, now in his second term in the Senate and his 22nd year in Congress, is more optimistic than most that a deal can be worked out addressing long-term fiscal issues.
Asked if he agrees that the conference committee is likely to produce only a deal covering the 2014 fiscal year, Sanders shakes his head. "It may well be a very limited time period," he said. "My experience is you never can tell."
But one thing Sanders is certain about is that much of Washington is out of touch, a realization that hit him after last week's opening hearing. "One of the things that I was struck by — again my views are different than most here — is the degree to which life outside of the Beltway is radically different than what takes place in here," he said.