Bernie Sanders was jubilant. It was July 2021, and the Vermont senator had just helped finalize a $3.5 trillion blueprint to overhaul the country’s health-care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws.
More than a year later, though, the sprawling package Sanders once envisioned is far smaller in size and scope. And as Democrats prepare to hold a key early vote on the bill, the senator himself has changed his tone — from a proud architect into a potent mix of supporter and critic.
“You can do something significant with 50 votes,” Sanders said in an interview Thursday, referring to the special legislative process Democrats plan to use to move the bill over Republican opposition. “Does this bill do that? No. Might it be better than nothing? Yes.”
For Sanders, the new health-care, climate and tax package that the Senate aims to adopt as soon as this weekend amounts to a massive missed opportunity. While the firebrand independent is supportive of its core aims — and is seen as likely to vote for its provisions to lower drug costs and address a fast-warming planet — he has increasingly made clear that the bill stops far short of what Democrats should have pursued while in rare control of the House, Senate and White House.
Twice in recent days, Sanders has taken to the Senate floor to sound off about the bill, at one point deriding its name as “the so-called Inflation Reduction Act.” He has promised to take one last run at expanding its reach, putting forward amendments during debate that could spend billions more on health care and climate.
Implicitly, Democratic leaders have defended the heft of their political efforts, saying a slimmed-down package was the only way to resurrect the party’s economic ambitions after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — a key fiscal hawk and swing vote in their ranks — rejected the ideas Sanders championed.
But the rationale has offered little comfort for Sanders, whose budget blueprint last year had paved the way for Democrats to expand Medicare, offer free prekindergarten, ensure paid family and medical leave, and solidify other federal safety-net programs. Now, the senator and former presidential candidate finds himself preparing for a long-awaited floor debate over a bill he views as disappointing.
Asked if he would cast his vote for the bill, Sanders replied, “I’m taking a hard look,” adding: “We’re going to have to see.”
The new Democratic economic package proposes to spend more than $433 billion on health care and climate change. It spares millions of Americans from insurance premiums set to take effect next year, and it includes investments to tackle global warming that total the largest-ever burst of federal spending to foster green energy.
Democrats hope to pay for that spending with a bevy of changes to tax policy along with a new program to lower seniors’ drug costs, saving both Medicare patients and the federal government money. Lawmakers say their blueprint can raise enough money to cover the cost of the bill and generate about $300 billion to reduce the deficit.
Democrats secured the provisions after weeks of intense talks between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Manchin, held out of view from the rest of their party. The duo clinched the deal in late July, even after Manchin signaled he could not support some of Democrats’ tax-and-spending plans out of concern about inflation.
Schumer and other Democratic leaders since then have raced to prepare the bill for the Senate floor, hoping to hold a vote to begin debate on Saturday. Ultimately, Democrats seek to adopt it under the process known as reconciliation, which allows party lawmakers to sidestep a Republican filibuster — but only if they stick together and limit their legislation to measures that implicate the budget. GOP lawmakers are united in opposing the bill.
Anticipating a fierce fight, lawmakers held another round of meetings Thursday with the chamber’s parliamentarian that aides said would continue into Friday. Party leaders also toiled behind the scenes to satisfy another moderate in their ranks: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). After days of silence, Sinema finally signaled late Thursday that she was ready to “move forward,” having secured agreement with Democratic leaders to dial back some of their tax plans.
Even before they had brokered the arrangement, though, Schumer had exhibited a public air of confidence about their prospects — sensing that an opportunity to achieve Biden’s long-stalled agenda was finally was within their grasp.
“For years, many in Washington have promised to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our nation, only to fall short,” he said in a floor speech Thursday afternoon, promising Democrats would “make good on our word.”
For many Democrats, the proposal represents only some of what they had hoped to deliver upon assuming the majority last year. Gone are their proposals that might have boosted money for public housing, extended tax benefits to families with children or committed billions of dollars toward caring for the elderly. All of those components were part of the original Build Back Better Act, a roughly $2 trillion measure enabled by the budget resolution that Sanders helped craft last July.
“It’s not everything we want, but it’s pretty rare you get everything you want in a single bill,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said, adding that the components that remain are still “powerful progressive priorities that we are about to get through Congress.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) acknowledged Thursday that he would have preferred if the proposal still included roughly $400 billion for child care. But he said Democrats managed to secure other priorities, including a campaign pledge to try to lower drug costs, adding: “It’s not going to be a hard bill to vote yes for.”
Sanders, however, has sounded a far different note. On Tuesday, he delivered the first of two speeches calling attention to the bill’s deficits. Taking to the Senate floor, Sanders did not mention Manchin directly, but he did begin by addressing “some of my colleagues” who had described the earlier Build Back Better Act as “dead” — a reference to the West Virginia senator’s recent comments.
“Now, I don’t know if that is absolutely true or not,” Sanders began. “But I do know that if it is true, it would be a disaster for working families all across this country who are desperately trying to survive economically.”
Sanders then proceeded to outline the myriad ideas lost in negotiations — from free community college for millions of low-income students to new dental, hearing and vision benefits for Medicare beneficiaries. Turning to the provisions that remained, the senator praised Democrats for including new spending on health care and climate change while ensuring companies pay at least some tax to the U.S. government. But he said many of those elements fell far short of what was needed.
On drug pricing, for example, Sanders said the drugs covered would be limited in number — and their savings years away. On climate, he lamented the inclusion of “giveaway” provisions for fossil fuels that the senator later described as at odds with the spirit of Democrats’ effort to confront global warming.
A day later, Sanders returned to the chamber, emphasizing changes he planned to push for. Under reconciliation, senators can offer unlimited amendments during debate — and the Vermont independent said he intended to put forward some that aim to restore his original spending plans. That includes amendments to provide dental, vision and hearing benefits under Medicare and take aim at oil and gas companies, he said.
Sanders’s pledge amounted to another subtle shot at Manchin, who has long opposed expanding Medicare and signed onto the new bill only after obtaining concessions that boost the fossil fuel industry. And it served as a major challenge to other Democrats, who soon may be asked to vote on proposals they supported in the past — yet gave up in the present in a bid to clinch a deal.
“Does this bill address the health-care crisis in America? No,” Sanders told The Washington Post on Thursday. “Does it deal with the cost of higher education or community college? No. Does it deal with housing? No … Does it deal with the issue of wealth and income inequality? No, it really doesn’t.”
“Reconciliation is the opportunity, the only opportunity we have, to really address the needs of working families,” he continued, saying of the bill: “No one can argue that it does [that].”
Like others in his caucus, Sanders said Thursday that he had not been included in the highly secretive talks between Schumer and Manchin that led to their breakthrough agreement. But he said it would have been a “fruitless effort” for him to negotiate with Manchin, since earlier attempts to reach a resolution with his moderate counterpart “did no good.”
The duo at one point last year publicly sniped at each other, after Sanders went as far as to publish an op-ed in Manchin’s home state extolling the virtues of the Build Back Better Act. That fall, Manchin repeatedly fired back, saying that if Democrats wanted a different outcome, they should try instead to “elect more liberals.”
Since then, the direct public acrimony has subsided. But Sanders on Thursday maintained that Democrats broadly still have failed to mount “the kind of effort we needed” to respond to a wide array of economic concerns.
“Do I think the Democratic Party, or any of us for that matter, have done the kind of work that we should have to rally the American people around that kind of agenda? No, I don’t think we have,” Sanders said. “It’s hard stuff to do.”