New York Times
By Jennifer Steinhauer
March 14, 2016
WASHINGTON — As Democrats cobbled together a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration law three years ago, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York was clear about one thing: His party could not suffer a single defection.
But one naysayer remained — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who had opposed a similar effort in 2007 and once again did not like provisions in the new bill that he thought would displace American workers. And he had a price, a $1.5 billion youth jobs program.
Through wheeling and dealing, shaming and cajoling, Mr. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, got his wish, and his favored provision was grafted incongruously onto a tough-minded Republican border security amendment and paid for by higher visa fees for some foreign travelers.
The immigration bill, opposed by House Republicans, never became law. But the jobs program amendment was classic Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist who has spent a quarter-century in Congress working the side door, tacking on amendments to larger bills that scratch his particular policy itches, generally focused on working-class Americans, income inequality and the environment.
Mr. Sanders is not unlike Tea Party Republicans in his tactics, except his are a decaf version. While he is unlikely to turn against his party on important votes, he is most proud of the things he has tried, unsuccessfully, to block over the years. And he boasts about them constantly on the campaign trail: the Iraq war, the Wall Street bailout and the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But in spite of persistent carping that Mr. Sanders is nothing but a quixotic crusader — during their first debate, Hillary Clinton cracked, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done” — he has often been an effective, albeit modest, legislator.
Over one 12-year stretch in the House, he passed more amendments by roll call vote than any other member of Congress. In the Senate, he secured money for dairy farmers and community health centers, blocked banks from hiring foreign workers and reined in the Federal Reserve, all through measures attached to larger bills.
“It has been a very successful strategy,” said Warren Gunnels, Mr. Sanders’s longtime policy adviser.
Mr. Sanders has been pushing basically the same legislative agenda since he was the mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s, one that favors workers, veterans and college students. But in 2016, he has found that the marriage of his passions and his blunt, fiery oration have come into vogue among many Democrats.
“I would point out to you that in perhaps the most significant public policy issue of our time, the war in Iraq, I cast the correct vote,” Mr. Sanders told CNN last year. “On the other hand, Secretary Clinton voted for that war. Her judgment was not right. It is an issue we have got to talk more about.”
His congressional relationships with Democrats and Republicans have been largely legislative and not loving. A backscratcher he is not. Mr. Sanders is far more likely to be found alone in his apartment watching cable news than out for Chinese food with other members of Congress. In an institution where relationships are often the butter, Mr. Sanders leverages a shared policy passion to grease his legislation.
“He is not Ted Kennedy, who managed to have these personal relationships that come from the day in and day out working the halls,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, who replaced Mr. Sanders in the House. “The way he works is consistent with his temperament and his skills.”
Yet counter to his reputation in his bid for the White House as a far-left gadfly, Mr. Sanders has done much of his work with Republican partners, generally people with whom he has almost nothing in common, with the notable exception of the discrete issue or two on which they see eye to eye.
He worked with Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, to prevent foreign workers from replacing Americans at banks that have had a federal bailout, and with former Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who shared his zeal for monitoring the Federal Reserve.
Mr. Sanders’s most notable partnership with a Republican was also one of his greatest successes. In 2014, Mr. Sanders, as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, worked out an accord with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, on a bill to expand veterans’ access to health care after a scandal involving veterans’ hospitals across the country.
The bill did something Republicans wanted: It allowed veterans to go outside of the official hospital system to get care under certain circumstances, while it expanded the government services that Mr. Sanders demanded.
“Given how liberal he is, it made the work hard,” Mr. McCain recalled last week. “But he was an honest liberal. I’ve worked with people who tell you they are going to do one thing and then do another, and Bernie did what he said. And he was very effective. It was the first real reform of the V.A. ever.”
Big legislation largely eludes Mr. Sanders because his ideas are usually far to the left of the majority of the Senate — from his notions about bank regulations, to the increase he seeks to the minimum wage, to his repeated attempts to get the federal government in the business of providing rebates for the purchase and installation of solar heating systems.
But from his days in the House, where he served from 1991 to 2007, and into his Senate career, Mr. Sanders has largely found ways to press his agenda through appending small provisions to the larger bills of others.
In the House, he attached a measure to prevent the Bush administration from finalizing rules that would have allowed companies to cut the pensions of older workers. Community health care clinics were expanded via a Sanders amendment to President Obama’s health care law. His amendments with Mr. Grassley to prevent bailed-out banks from replacing American workers with foreign ones was part of a major economic stimulus bill in 2009.
“The reason he has been so successful is that he built very strong left-right coalitions, ” said Mr. Gunnels, who now works on Mr. Sanders’s campaign. “He doesn’t see himself as on the left. He sees himself exclusively as fighting for working people.”
But when it comes to Mr. Sanders’s proudest legislative moments, it is the losses that stand out, in the liberal mirror image of the Tea Party Republicans who oppose large-scale legislation.
He was among 25 senators in 2008 to vote against the $700 billion bailout of big banks. He said no to the Iraq war. The Patriot Act and a popular measure to develop and deploy a defense system to stop Iranian ballistic missiles? Not to Mr. Sanders.
In 2010, he voted against a measure to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts against the wishes of the White House. He also gave an eight-hour floor speech to defend himself, setting off his current romance with liberal voters.
Mr. Sanders got the rest of the Democratic base to listen to words he has been repeating for decades, not so much because his legislation has been in constant step with the nation’s, but rather because much of the nation has come around to the things he has been legislating.
“Bernie has been talking about income inequality since 1981,” Mr. Welch said. “And now that is a message whose time has come.”
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