Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is now publicly calling out his most conservative Democratic colleagues for not specifying their demands for the proposed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan — the budget reconciliation bill Democrats have been struggling to negotiate for weeks.
“We need some specificity here,” Sanders said in a press conference directly addressing West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to President Joe Biden’s proposal. “It’s not good enough to be vague. You want to cut child care? How much do you want to cut child care? Do you want to cut climate? Cut climate. How much do you want to do that?”
Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and has been playing a central role in crafting the bill, said the same of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is also strongly opposed to the president’s agenda and has been even more elusive than Manchin.
The Build Back Better agenda is a sweeping social welfare and infrastructure proposal that, among many things, would invest in child care, create a national paid leave program, lower drug prices, make community college free, invest in affordable housing and make the country’s power sector carbon-neutral by 2035. The Biden administration has proposed $3.5 trillion in spending over 10 years, in part offset by taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
After weeks of circular negotiations that haven’t brought Democrats much closer to an actual bill, Sanders took his grievances with his colleagues to the press Wednesday.
“It is wrong, it is really not playing fair, that one or two people think that they should be able to stop what 48 members of the Democratic Caucus want, what the American people want,” Sanders said.
The Vermont senator’s fundamental issue is that he, even as a member of leadership, does not know what the two moderate senators want in and out of the reconciliation bill. Sanders maintained that private negotiations with Manchin, Sinema and the broader Democratic caucus are ongoing.
Manchin last week bristled at the idea that he’s not been clear enough about his demands. He gave Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer a broad outline of his policy preferences over the summer, saying he would support a $1.5 trillion package. That outline called for means-testing on new spending programs, spending caps and changes to certain Trump-era tax cuts.
Still, that outline left most of the Biden agenda untouched.
Sinema, meanwhile, refuses to speak openly to the press and says she will not negotiate publicly.
“Senator Sinema’s position has been that she doesn’t ‘negotiate publicly’ — I don’t know what that means,” Sanders said. “What I have heard, and I don’t know if this is accurate — This is a problem — I have heard that she is opposed to having Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices ... I heard that she was opposed to asking the wealthy, and large corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. That is what I have heard. Maybe I’m wrong.”
Democratic leaders set a new deadline to finish the reconciliation bill by the end of October. The White House has been increasingly involved in negotiations, with the president meeting individually with Manchin and Sinema, as well as larger groups of Democrats. White House advisers have also been in and out of congressional offices pushing to reach some kind of consensus.
But, from Sanders’ press conference, it seems nothing has been decided yet. And the issue is not just in the Senate. In the House, Democrats’ fragile majority means House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) must also bring the most progressive and moderate lawmakers together as well.