Sanders Brings a Different Perspective to Budget Talks

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)
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Nov. 3, 2013, 7:29 a.m.

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.

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