Bernie Sanders Is a Loud, Stubborn Socialist. Republicans Like Him Anyway.

His achievements include the bipartisan VA reform bill: “Frankly, without him, I don’t think we would have gotten it done.”

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a protest held by furloughed federal workers outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the lockout of federal workers caused by the government shutdown October 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Today marks the fourth day of the government shutdown as Republicans and Democrats remain at an impasse over funding the federal government. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
July 27, 2015, 4:05 p.m.

In the Sen­ate, Bernie Sanders should be all alone.

Sanders is con­stantly rib­bing Re­pub­lic­ans in his trade­mark con­des­cend­ing Brook­lyn-ac­cen­ted tone. He of­fers up le­gis­la­tion that’s so far to the left that it couldn’t get a vote even un­der Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. He’s the cur­mudgeon in the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic con­fer­ence, rarely sat­is­fied with how far his lead­er­ship will go to pur­sue pro­gress­ive policies, and not afraid to vote ‘nay’ when his lead­ers come up short. And none of his Sen­ate col­leagues, on either side of the aisle, think he could ever be elec­ted pres­id­ent of the United States; most of them even be­lieve he shouldn’t be.

But rather than earn­ing the frus­tra­tion and ire of his peers in the vein of oth­er Sen­ate hard-liners such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Sanders has man­aged to be re­spec­ted — even liked — by much of the cham­ber, ac­cord­ing to mem­bers on both sides of the aisle. The Ver­mont in­de­pend­ent ac­tu­ally has much more in com­mon with Sen. Tom Coburn, the now-re­tired “Dr. No,” whose hard-line op­pos­i­tion killed many bills in the Sen­ate but also earned him the re­spect of his col­leagues on both sides of the aisle.

Sanders also has been able to work well with his col­leagues. He’s passed bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion and forged strong re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers of both parties in nearly 25 years on Cap­it­ol Hill. But most of all, mem­bers say, even when Sanders is ideo­lo­gic­ally an out­lier, he lets oth­ers know where he stands. He’s not the type to sud­denly stab a col­league in the back. And that’s earned him re­spect both on and off the Hill.

“A lot of people here talk about what they be­lieve in, but they don’t act on it,” Sen. Mark Warner said. “He al­ways acts on what he be­lieves. “¦ We can agree or dis­agree, but you know where he stands.”

Law­makers on both sides of the aisle, in­clud­ing Sanders him­self, point to last year’s deal to im­prove the dis­astrous, scan­dal-rid­den Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment as a high­light. After weeks of ne­go­ti­at­ing with a cadre of Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues, Sanders helped pass the deal on a 91-3 vote in the Sen­ate. “In a pretty dys­func­tion­al Con­gress I helped pass, in a bi­par­tis­an way, the sig­ni­fic­ant vet­er­ans bill, which in­creases health care to vet­er­ans and lowers wait­ing times, and I’m proud of that,” Sanders said. “That was a sig­ni­fic­ant step for­ward.”

“He knew when to hold and knew when to fold and, I think, max­im­ized what we could get for vet­er­ans,” said Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, who also par­ti­cip­ated in the VA talks.

Sanders has also passed an amend­ment to the Dodd-Frank bill that led to the first audit of the Fed­er­al Re­serve. He and Sen. Robert Men­en­dez se­cured fund­ing in the 2008 stim­u­lus bill for clean-en­ergy ini­ti­at­ives. And he in­ser­ted lan­guage in­to the Af­ford­able Care Act to in­crease fund­ing for com­munity health cen­ters.

Those le­gis­lat­ive wins are roughly on par with those of his fel­low class­mates of 2006, in­clud­ing more mod­er­ate mem­bers whose ideo­lo­gic­al lean­ings more eas­ily lend them to com­prom­ise with the oth­er side, such as Sens. Jon Test­er and Bob Cork­er.

But as with Coburn, Sanders’ will­ing­ness to stand up and say no has also helped him to score vic­tor­ies on Cap­it­ol Hill. Sanders high­lights his battles to pre­vent Re­pub­lic­ans from cut­ting So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits as well as “the com­plete decim­a­tion of the U.S. Postal Ser­vice.”

Des­pite those rough mo­ments, Re­pub­lic­ans still say by and large they like the sen­at­or. Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, who served on the Budget Com­mit­tee with Sanders, said that while the two couldn’t be more op­pos­ite ideo­lo­gic­ally, they still share a mu­tu­al re­spect. “So of­ten he would ar­tic­u­late the lib­er­al — very lib­er­al — line. And I would ar­tic­u­late the con­ser­vat­ive line. And it would go something like, ‘We need to tax the rich, we’ve got too many poor.’ And I said, ‘That’s right. We’ve got so much gov­ern­ment, so much taxes, we really, you know, cre­ated the poor. It’s your prob­lem,’ ” Ses­sions grinned. “But you know, I’ve al­ways re­spec­ted Bernie and we’ve got­ten along per­son­ally well.”

Sen. John Mc­Cain, who ne­go­ti­ated the VA deal with Sanders after Sen. Richard Burr, then the rank­ing mem­ber on the Vet­er­ans Com­mit­tee, said he couldn’t get any fur­ther in the ne­go­ti­ations with Sanders, gave the in­de­pend­ent high praise, not­ing that “his word is good.”

But he ac­know­ledged that Sanders can be can­tan­ker­ous, adding with a laugh: “Both of us have that repu­ta­tion.”

“We worked very, um — with a lot of con­ten­tion and a lot of spir­ited de­bate. We were able to come to an agree­ment be­cause both of us wanted an agree­ment. And I found him to be hon­or­able and good as his word. And his word was good. So I found it a very sat­is­fact­ory and some­times, shall I say, col­or­ful ex­per­i­ence,” Mc­Cain said.

Sen. Jack Reed used the term “ex­tremely en­er­get­ic” to de­scribe Sanders, a friend and long­time col­league whose re­la­tion­ship with Reed goes back to their days in the House. “Last year when we had the scan­dal at the VA, he was in­cred­ibly ef­fect­ive, en­gaged in get­ting the le­gis­la­tion passed, in get­ting it fun­ded. Frankly, without him, I don’t think we would have got­ten it done be­cause there was a lot of name-call­ing but there wasn’t a lot of con­struct­ive, ‘OK, here’s the re­sources. …’ And he did it,” Reed said. “And it was a great test­a­ment to his skill as a le­gis­lat­or.”

Sanders has a sys­tem, said Sen. Sher­rod Brown, who served with him in the House be­fore both were elec­ted to the Sen­ate in 2006. “He would call them ‘tri­part­ite amend­ments’ be­cause we’d have him and he’d get a Re­pub­lic­an, he’d get a Demo­crat and he’d pass things. He’s good at build­ing co­ali­tions,” Brown said.

Sanders says it’s all about do­ing things “the old-fash­ioned way,” find­ing “people from both parties who you can work with.”

In that, Sanders has been sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful.

“I learned early on not to be auto­mat­ic­ally dis­missive of a Bernie Sanders ini­ti­at­ive or amend­ment,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er, who served with Sanders in the House for more than a dec­ade. Wick­er said that he has been sur­prised by how of­ten their ideo­lo­gic­al in­terests align, giv­en that both are from rur­al states.

“Now ob­vi­ously, he’s very much to the left, and I think much more lib­er­al than the Amer­ic­an pub­lic, as a mat­ter of fact,” Wick­er ad­ded. “But he’s ten­a­cious and dogged and has de­term­in­a­tion, and he’s not to be un­der­es­tim­ated.”

Still, Sanders’s bi­par­tis­an bona fides have shif­ted in his years in Con­gress. “When I was in the House way back when, there was a peri­od when I got more amend­ments passed in a bi­par­tis­an man­ner than any oth­er mem­ber,” Sanders told Na­tion­al Journ­al. Now, Gov­Track ranks him in the bot­tom 2 per­cent of sen­at­ors in writ­ing bills with bi­par­tis­an co­spon­sor­ship, and the Lugar Cen­ter (foun­ded by former col­league Sen. Richard Lugar) ranked him 90th on its Sen­ate Bi­par­tis­an In­dex.

Part of that is ex­plained by Sanders’ in­tro­duc­tion of le­gis­la­tion that ad­vances his ideo­lo­gic­al prin­ciples but has no hope of get­ting through a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Con­gress, such as his re­cent $15-min­im­um-wage bill, which his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign has touted in re­cent fun­drais­ing missives.

But even Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers who balk at those ideo­lo­gic­al pushes say that when Sanders sees something that needs to get done, he’s more than will­ing to do what it takes to get there.

Burr, who said that he and Sanders reached an “im­passe” in the VA talks be­fore Mc­Cain vo­lun­teered to take the lead, said, “Sen­at­or Sanders un­der­stands what it takes to get le­gis­la­tion across the goal line.”

“I think he’s very out­spoken in terms of where he is ideo­lo­gic­ally,” Burr said. “But when he gets down to the need to get le­gis­la­tion in­to law, then I find him to be one who’s will­ing to sit down and com­prom­ise and ne­go­ti­ate to get to a fi­nal product.”

Wick­er ad­ded, of the fi­nal VA deal: “Ob­vi­ously, he agreed to some things that in a va­cu­um would have been ab­hor­rent to him — choice, go­ing out­side the sys­tem with a vouch­er. “¦ And of course what Sen­at­or Sanders got in re­turn was more VA fa­cil­it­ies, which in and of it­self [is] not a bad res­ult for any­body.”

Sanders is not the glad-hand­ing type, and he’s hardly among the mem­bers go­ing out for beers in the even­ings (or slip­ping them in dur­ing late-night votes). Reed de­scribes Sanders as a sen­at­or in his own vein. “I think there are dif­fer­ent per­son­al­it­ies in the Sen­ate, some really out­go­ing — I would put my­self in the cat­egory of not the most out­go­ing. But you know, he’s a gen­tle­man, thought­ful, a lead­er,” Reed said.

“You know, if you want to have a pleas­ant dis­cus­sion on not only policy is­sues but just is­sues of the day, he’s a pleas­ant guy,” Reed ad­ded.

But he is not without friends on Cap­it­ol Hill and has spent dec­ades build­ing re­la­tion­ships with mem­bers that could help him to push a policy agenda through Con­gress in a way that Pres­id­ent Obama has, at least un­til re­cently, been reti­cent to do.

“Clearly if you want to get any­thing done, you have to work with mem­bers of Con­gress and you have to work with mem­bers of both polit­ic­al parties,” Sanders said. “I have done that and as pres­id­ent, I cer­tainly would do that. But that’s kind of what you have to do — no ifs, buts or maybes.”

Asked about his per­son­al re­la­tion­ships with oth­er mem­bers, Sanders presen­ted his typ­ic­al gruff­ness. “Do I have a per­son­al re­la­tion­ships? Well of course I do; I’ve known some of these people for 20, 30 years. So of course I do. “¦ If the ques­tion is, do I have good friends who are in the United States Sen­ate, then yes. I do.”

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