Bernie Sanders has a new role. It could be his final act in Washington

As the new chair of a powerful Senate committee, he gets sweeping jurisdiction over issues that have animated his rise in politics

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

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Senator Bernie Sanders in a conference room on Capitol Hill, in Washington on Jan. 18, 2023. After two unsuccessful runs for the presidency, the Vermont senator now leads the Senate health committee, a job that gives him sweeping jurisdiction over issues he cares about. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)
Senator Bernie Sanders in a conference room on Capitol Hill, in Washington on Jan. 18, 2023. After two unsuccessful runs for the presidency, the Vermont senator now leads the Senate health committee, a job that gives him sweeping jurisdiction over issues he cares about. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 5:20 PM

In two unsuccessful bids for the White House, Senator Bernie Sanders made no secret of his disdain for billionaires. Now, in what could be his final act in Washington, he has the power to summon them to testify before Congress — and he has a few corporate executives in his sights.

One is Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, who Sanders complains “has become a multibillionaire” by developing a coronavirus vaccine with government money. “I think Mr. Bancel should be talking to his advisers about what he might say to the United States Senate,” Sanders warned in an interview.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and Howard Schultz, the on-and-off CEO of Starbucks, are also on his list. He views them as union busters whose companies have resorted to “really vicious and illegal” tactics to keep workers from organising. He has already demanded that Schultz testify at a hearing in March.

Sanders can put these men on the spot because he is the new chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions. The job gives him sweeping jurisdiction over issues that have animated his rise in politics, such as access to health care, the high cost of prescription drugs and workers’ rights.

Sanders, 81, who identifies as a democratic socialist, has said he will not seek the Democratic nomination for president again if President Joe Biden runs for reelection — a position he reiterated in a recent interview in his Senate office. He is himself up for reelection in 2024 and would not say whether he would run again, which raises the prospect that the next two years in Congress could be his last.

Sanders is clearly operating on two tracks. Last week, in a move that might surprise critics who view him as unbending, he partnered with a Republican, Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, to call on rail companies to offer seven days of paid sick leave to their workers — a provision that the Senate defeated last year when it passed legislation to avert a rail strike.

But he also sent a curt letter to Schultz, giving him until Tuesday to respond confirming his attendance at the hearing. That followed an earlier, angry letter in which Sanders urged the Starbucks chief to “immediately halt your aggressive and illegal union busting campaign.” A Starbucks spokesperson said the company was considering the request for Schultz to testify and was working to “offer clarifying information” about its labour practices.

Former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a Democrat who served as majority leader, said that Sanders could “bring a balance between the progressive and the pragmatic”. “He will be progressive; he will be aspirational; he will continue to fight the fight,” Daschle said. “But at the same time, I believe Bernie Sanders wants to get things done.”

The chairmanship is the latest turn in Sanders’ long career in politics, a coda to his rise from a left-wing socialist curiosity to a national figure with respect, power and a devoted fan base. After three decades in Washington, he still manages to cast himself as an outsider. And while he may never ascend to the presidency, there is no question that he has left his mark on national politics, reviving and strengthening the American left.

But Sanders’ national following cuts both ways. He is both a darling of the progressive movement and fodder for conservatives, who are already gleefully caricaturing him.

“Medicare for All, baby!” crowed Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, referring to Sanders’ signature legislative initiative, a government-run health care programme for all Americans. “I guarantee you Bernie Sanders will provide a wonderful target for Republicans to shoot at.”

He already has. Sanders’ rise has put him in the ranks of the very wealthy Americans he criticises, in part thanks to a book he wrote, “Our revolution,” in the wake of his first bid for the presidency. (“If you write a bestselling book, you can be a millionaire, too,” he said in 2019.)

He is about to go on tour to hawk a new book, “It’s OK to be angry about capitalism,” due out later this month and billed by its publisher as “a progressive takedown of the über-capitalist status quo.” Tickets for an upcoming book event at a concert venue in Washington are selling for up to $95 on Ticketmaster — a company that last month was accused of anti-competitive behaviour by some of Sanders’ Senate colleagues. His Republican critics are having a field day with that.

“Anyone else see the ‘irony’ in Bernie Sanders selling tickets for his ‘It’s okay to be angry about capitalism’ book tour on Ticketmaster?” Representative Bill Huizenga, a Republican from Michigan, wrote on Twitter. A spokesperson for Sanders said the senator was not involved in selecting the venue or setting ticket prices.

With Republicans running the House and 60 votes needed to pass most bills in the Senate, Sanders has little hope of pushing major legislation through Congress. He intends to introduce a Medicare for All bill, as he has done in past Congresses, because he feels “it’s important to keep that issue out there”, as he put it. But he is well aware that it is going nowhere on Capitol Hill.

“We don’t have the votes,” he said matter-of-factly. “We have no Republican support for it. And I would guess, you know, we have maybe half of Democrats who might support it.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then a Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at a campaign rally at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Kim Raff/The New York Times)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then a Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at a campaign rally at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Kim Raff/The New York Times)

That is Sanders the realist speaking, in a tone far more practical than the one he has used during his campaign rallies and familiar rants against millionaires and billionaires. But those who watch Sanders closely know that, while he has never been a master legislator in the mold of former Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a predecessor of his as the health committee chair, he is able to work across the aisle.

In 2014, as chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sanders partnered with Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, on a major overhaul of the veterans’ health care system — a measure that the Vermont senator described then as “not the bill that I would have written” but nonetheless “a significant step forward”.

A copy of the bill hangs on the wall of his office, alongside a photograph of President Barack Obama signing it, with Sanders looking over his shoulder and doing something he is not often seen doing in the Capitol: smiling.

Sanders’ activist roots run deep, but after arriving in Washington in 1991 as Vermont’s lone member of the House, he quickly learned that being an outsider would only get him so far. He would have to deal with Democrats if he wanted any power. In the Senate, which he joined in 2007, he has worked his way up the ranks. In addition to leading the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he has also served as chair of the Budget Committee.

No one — perhaps not even Sanders himself — could have predicted then that he would wage two credible runs for the Democratic nomination for president. In the interview, Sanders brushed aside questions of politics. He wanted to talk policy. “We spend twice as much per capita on health care as the people of other industrialised nations, and yet we have 85 million who are uninsured or underinsured,” he said, adding, “So you have a system that is not working. It’s propped up by the power of the insurance companies, some drug companies,” he continued, “and I will do my best to change it.”

Sanders wants to hear from Moderna, he said, about the company’s plan to sharply hike the price of its coronavirus vaccine. In a recent letter to Bancel, he assailed the vaccine maker for “unacceptable corporate greed” and urged the company to reconsider. A spokesperson for Moderna said the company had always “been willing to engage in conversation with government stakeholders” and would continue to do so.

At the hearing in March, Sanders wants Schultz to explain why Starbucks has drawn scrutiny from the National Labour Relations Board. The board has been investigating Starbucks for various allegations of misconduct, including that it had illegally denied raises to union employees and had fired seven workers at a store in Memphis, Tennessee, for their union-organising activity. A court later ordered Starbucks to reinstate those workers.

The health committee also has some must-pass legislation on its agenda, including the reauthorisation of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, a 2006 law intended to improve public health and medical preparedness for emergencies, including acts of bioterrorism. The law was reauthorised in 2013 and must be reauthorised this year.

Joel White, a Republican strategist who specialises in health policy, said Sanders might be more bipartisan than some of his critics expect, adding, “I think Bernie probably wouldn’t have become chair of the health committee just to throw bombs.”

Two Republicans on the panel, Braun and Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas, both said in interviews that they thought they might find common ground with Sanders on matters like lowering the cost of prescription drugs and supporting community health centres.

And Daschle said Sanders had a counterpart he could probably work with: Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the top Republican on the committee. A physician who helped found a community health clinic to treat the uninsured, Cassidy was one of seven Republicans who voted to convict former President Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial.

As committee chair, Sanders said he intended to “take the show on the road” by having hearings in places other than Washington so he could hear from ordinary Americans, such as older people who have a hard time paying for prescription drugs, working families struggling to pay for child care and students who cannot afford to pay for college.

With the recent retirement of Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat who served for 48 years, Sanders is finally the senior senator from Vermont. Asked how he felt, he said, “pretty good.” Then, ever combative, he shot back, “How do you feel?”

He said people who wonder about whether he will run again — and by people, he meant reporters — should “keep wondering”.

Why? “Because I’ve just told you, and this is very serious,” he said, wearing his trademark scowl. “If you think about my record, I take this job seriously. The purpose of elections is to elect people to do work, not to keep talking about elections.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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