Back in the Senate, Sanders weighs how to wield his outside-Washington power

The 78-year-old with heart troubles spent nearly 11 weeks quarantining at home in Vermont, time to think about his next act.

© Salwan Georges/The Washington Post  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses his supporters via live-stream from his home in Vermont after ending his presidential campaign on April 8.

By Paul Kane, The Washington Post

Sen. Bernie Sanders is finally back in the Capitol.

After two runner-up finishes for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders (I-Vt.) is charting an inside-the-Senate strategy anchored on applying outside-Washington pressure to kick-start a legacy-shaping portion of his career.

The 78-year-old spent nearly 11 weeks quarantining at home in Vermont, staying safe amid a pandemic that targets the elderly and those with heart troubles, among other comorbidities.

But first, Sanders wants everyone to know he hates the quarantine as much as anyone else.

“Let me just say, I have become increasingly unhappy with the telephone. I’m spending half my life on the telephone. It’s true. I got these . . . earplugs in my ears right now,” Sanders said during a telephone interview from his office in Washington.

He misses just eyeing people, whether they’re cheering crowds at campaign rallies or voters at town halls or witnesses in committee hearings.

“I learn by looking at faces in a way that, you can’t do it via video or certainly by the telephone. So I would tell you that I miss the personal contact that one normally has with human beings,” Sanders said.

On Monday, Sanders cast his first Senate vote in more than two months, a period in which the independent joined the Democratic caucus’s conference calls several days a week, strategized with his own staff by phone and participated in a half-dozen committee hearings by video. He also formally dropped out of the presidential race, on April 8, and pledged to work as hard as he could to elect the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

All that time away — the longest of any senator to avoid the pandemic hot spot of Washington — served as an incubation period for Sanders, pondering how he wants to use his political fame and overall Senate seniority to try to shape legislative outcomes.

On Wednesday, Sanders delivered a 22-minute speech, his first on the Senate floor in months, that decried the “worst do-nothing Senate in modern American history” as three crises — the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic collapse, along with civil unrest linked to police brutality — grip the nation.

In his first week back, the Senate held four votes, one on a military promotion and three on a federal lands bill.

“Nero played his fiddle. At least he did something. He provided entertainment to his court,” Sanders said in the floor speech.

He is already the ranking minority-party member on the Budget Committee. If Biden wins and Democrats reclaim the majority, Sanders would become chairman and instantly a point person on the most ambitious agenda items for the new administration, likely to rely on fast-track procedures the panel is allowed to use to overcome 60-vote hurdles on most legislation.

Sanders has reviewed the paths of senators who returned after not winning the presidency. They tend to break in two directions, with the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) frequently cited as those whose Senate careers shined once they set aside presidential dreams. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) left the Senate to become secretary of state months after finishing second to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, setting up her 2016 campaign.

Sanders plans to stay in the Senate but believes he has a different path than Kennedy or McCain.

“I have looked at what other former candidates did. Our situation is maybe a little bit different because I was not just a candidate, but consider myself to be part of the strong grass-roots movement,” he said.

The self-proclaimed democratic socialist stepped out the past few days with a string of endorsements that drew attention from the Democratic establishment. Sanders threw his support behind Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (D) in the primary to determine who will challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). Booker is going against Amy McGrath, who is the favored candidate of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Sanders also endorsed Jamaal Bowman, the middle school principal who is challenging Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a 16-term incumbent who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But Sanders is also looking deeper down the ballot to try to have a longer-term impact by seeding the next generation of anti-establishment liberals. He is raising money for candidates for state legislature, and with protests still simmering after the death of George Floyd in police custody, he has doubled down on his effort to boost candidates for local district attorney who do not hail from the traditional law-and-order background.

“If you’re interested in police department and criminal justice reform, you ought to be interested in the district attorneys,” he said.

His political team is trying to use as many forms of digital communications as possible to reach his activist base. On Wednesday night, he and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a onetime presidential candidate, did a 100-minute virtual town hall on racial justice that was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, each senator appearing by video from separate locations.

Sanders endorsed Biden on a video appearance, with the former rivals in their respective homes, and other candidates can expect similar help in the short term. “We’re just going to have to use the Internet and social media as the best way of communicating,” he said.

The senator declined to address how different his relationship is now with Biden compared to the strained bonds with Clinton after she defeated him in the 2016 primary, a relationship that remains frayed.

Instead, he noted that he has known Biden since winning his first Senate race in 2006.

“I think there’s a mutual respect and obviously political differences, that’s for sure, but mutual respect. And I want to do everything I can to make sure that Donald Trump is not reelected. And I told that to Joe privately,” he said.

Sanders just doesn’t know when he can return to traditional campaigning, for Biden or any of his preferred candidates — or when he can visit his seven grandchildren.

“It is painful to me, painful to me, not to be out around my own state, around the country, engaging people. I love to do town meetings, I love, love, love to do town meetings,” Sanders reiterated, fondly recalling those iconic rallies with 25,000 supporters cheering. “Do I miss that? I surely do. I absolutely do.”

Until health officials say it’s safe to resume traditional politic, Sanders will have to rely on his telephone.

And, when the phone line went dead briefly, he declared vindication.

See, he said, in “normal times” the interview would have been in person, in his office.

“We wouldn’t have been disconnected,” Sanders said.

Read more at The Washington Post


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Back in the Senate, Sanders weighs how to wield his outside-Washington power
The 78-year-old with heart troubles spent nearly 11 weeks quarantining at home in Vermont, time to think about his next act. News | Breaking News, US News, World News
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