Back on the Trail, Bernie Sanders Campaigns for the $3.5 Trillion Budget Plan

Senator Bernie Sanders is barnstorming the country again, but not for the presidency. Instead, he’s making the case for a $3.5 trillion bill that would be a once-in-a generation achievement.,


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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.

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.

“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.”

Days later, Mr. Manchin called for a “strategic pause” on the budget package, writing in the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, “I can’t explain why my Democratic colleagues are rushing to spend $3.5 trillion.”

In Cedar Rapids, Mr. Sanders readily acknowledged how aggressive his timeline was, but argued that there was no time to spare.

“You can’t slow it down,” he said. “Within a little while, everything is going to become political. The only way you get things done historically in Congress is in the first year of a session, where you can escape a little bit from the partisan politics.”

The array of “Bernie” campaign attire in the crowd last Sunday indicated that few present took issue with the transformative policy ideas that Mr. Sanders laid out: free community college and prekindergarten, federal funding for paid family leave and child care, the establishment of a civilian corps to help create jobs while combating climate change, and an expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits — all paid for with tax increases on wealthy people and corporations.

“I did not vote for Bernie before, but I’m interested in the whole process and the political pull that he has had,” said Frank Nidey, 70, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids who brought his two grandchildren to the rally. “I know that this legislative process is very messy, and I don’t know for sure what’s going to come out of it.”

Republicans took advantage of Mr. Sanders’s foray into their states to assail the plan, with conservative activists staging their own small rallies to stoke opposition. Senator Mike Braun of Indiana posed next to a large pig with “Pull the Pork” written in big black letters across it. Representative Ashley Hinson of Iowa scoffed on Twitter that Mr. Sanders would have “a tough time” selling his “far left policies outside the main stream” in her state.

At Midtown Station, Tim Barcz, 41, initially joined the discussion with Mr. Sanders because he wondered what the senator was doing in his town, but the back-and-forth piqued his interest when it turned to free college, an issue newly relevant with his oldest son just entering high school.

Normally, visits from politician are “just shaking hands and kissing babies, but when you hear Bernie talking about policy, that’s important,” said Mr. Barcz, an independent who said he had reluctantly voted for Donald J. Trump. “But will you change hearts and minds this way? That’s what I don’t know.”

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