Back on the Trail, Sanders Campaigns for a Legislative Legacy

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — With a khaki-clad leg propped up on a bench, hand on his hip, Senator Bernie Sanders was regaling the post-church Sunday brunch crowd outside a bar with enticing details about Democrats’ emerging $3.5 trillion budget bill.

As Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” blared in the background, Mr. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, fielded questions from curious diners about plans to provide two years of free community college education and reduce prescription drug prices, interjecting an occasional apology for letting the food grow cold as he gathered feedback about the package.

Before sitting down with his family to finish eating, one man wondered aloud about something else entirely: Less than a year after the end of the 2020 presidential campaign season and with the midterm elections looming, what was Mr. Sanders doing in Iowa?

“I am chairman of the Senate Budget Committee,” replied Mr. Sanders, a veteran of two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. “And I am here to explain what the hell is in the budget for the American people.”

Just a few days shy of his 80th birthday, Mr. Sanders was back on the campaign trail last week, trekking across Republican-leaning districts in the Midwest to cap off a blitz of local television interviews and opinion essays placed in traditionally conservative news outlets.

But this time, instead of pursuing a higher political office, he was campaigning for a legislative legacy: a $3.5 trillion package that, if passed, would amount to the most significant expansion of the social safety net since the Great Society of the 1960s.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, rallied every Democrat in Congress last month behind the budget blueprint, which sets the stage for them to push through ambitious initiatives to address climate change, provide funding for paid family leave, child care and education benefits, and increase taxes on the wealthy — all on a party-line vote.

Understand the Infrastructure Bill

    • One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
    • The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
    • Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
    • Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
    • Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
    • Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.

    But it is Mr. Sanders who will oversee the drafting of the legislation in the Senate, which Democrats plan to steer through Congress using fast-track budget reconciliation rules, which shield it from a filibuster but will require the support of every Democrat in the Senate and nearly every Democrat in the House. Committee leaders hope to finish their work on the enormous bill by Sept. 15. The process will not be easy, given the need for party unity and the strict rules that limit what can be included in reconciliation bills.

    Among the steepest challenges will be persuading conservative-leaning Democrats, such as Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to drop their reservations about the plan’s cost and support it.

    “Pelosi and Schumer have enormously difficult jobs — they really do — and it’s easy to disparage them, to criticize them, but they have no margins with which to deal with,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “It’s not a job that I envy, a job that I could do for three minutes.”

    Mr. Sanders has decided the best way to make the case for his vision is through outreach to Republican voters, including in-person conversations in Republican-leaning districts in Indiana and Iowa. Having relished his past interactions with voters on the campaign trail, he was back in his element, far from the staid corridors of Capitol Hill.

    Politics Updates

    “This is way outside of what normal budget committees do, but on the other hand, I feel very fortunate to be in this position at this moment,” Mr. Sanders said, drinking iced tea on the patio of Midtown Station, a restaurant near the fire station, after his question-and-answer session. “In fact, if I weren’t so preoccupied with the reconciliation package and having to deal with members of Congress, etc., etc., I would probably take the Budget Committee on the road all over this country.”

    “That’s what we should be doing,” he added. “We’ve got to explain to the American people what we’re doing here for them, and it can’t simply be an inside-the-Beltway process.”

    But whether in Washington or in Iowa, Mr. Sanders has little patience for discussing the procedural details of the reconciliation package, focusing instead on the policy ideas he jots down in sprawling cursive. In opening remarks at a nearby park before a crowd of hundreds fanned out in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets, Mr. Sanders offered a brief warning that Senate rules could “put you to sleep in about three seconds.”

    “It’s complicated, it’s boring, etc.,” he told them.

    Yet those mind-numbing details will be crucial. The need for Democrats to be virtually unanimous in their support will drive the process, determining which policies can be included and which will have to be jettisoned. And the Senate parliamentarian, as the arbiter of the chamber’s rules, will potentially advise dropping certain provisions because they do not directly affect taxes and spending, a requirement for items included in reconciliation bills.

    Glossing over those specifics, Mr. Sanders reassured the crowd — largely a gathering of his acolytes from across the state — that his vision would become law despite the opposition of people like Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema.

    “After a lot of negotiations and pain — and I’m going to be on the phone all week — what we are going to do is pass the most comprehensive bill for working families that this country has seen,” he said in response to questions about the two moderates. Asked whether he would compromise on the overall price tag, Mr. Sanders, who initially wanted a $6 trillion package, replied: “I think we are going to get a $3.5 trillion bill. I’ve already made a compromise.”

    Biden’s 2022 Budget

    The 2022 fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, and President Biden has revealed what he’d like to spend, starting then. But any spending requires approval from both chambers of Congress. Here’s what the plan includes:

      • Ambitious total spending: President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade.
      • Infrastructure plan: The budget outlines the president’s desired first year of investment in his American Jobs Plan, which seeks to fund improvements to roads, bridges, public transit and more with a total of $2.3 trillion over eight years.
      • Families plan: The budget also addresses the other major spending proposal Biden has already rolled out, his American Families Plan, aimed at bolstering the United States’ social safety net by expanding access to education, reducing the cost of child care and supporting women in the work force.
      • Mandatory programs: As usual, mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare make up a significant portion of the proposed budget. They are growing as America’s population ages.
      • Discretionary spending: Funding for the individual budgets of the agencies and programs under the executive branch would reach around $1.5 trillion in 2022, a 16 percent increase from the previous budget.
      • How Biden would pay for it: The president would largely fund his agenda by raising taxes on corporations and high earners, which would begin to shrink budget deficits in the 2030s. Administration officials have said tax increases would fully offset the jobs and families plans over the course of 15 years, which the budget request backs up. In the meantime, the budget deficit would remain above $1.3 trillion each year.

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