Bernie Sanders is still running against Joe Biden

·5 min read

Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders convincingly in the 2020 Democratic primary elections, en route to winning the White House last November. But now that Biden is president, the curmudgeonly Vermont senator is still competing with him on many issues they tussled over on the campaign trail—this time, with trillions of real dollars at stake.

With the Democrats’ surprising sweep to power in the Senate after the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia, Sanders became chair of the Senate Budget Committee. That gives him jurisdiction over crucial legislation, including whether to pursue the “reconciliation” process allowing some bills to pass with a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. And Sanders continues to push hard for tax hikes and other measures far to the left of what Biden prefers.

Sanders led the fight for a $15 minimum wage to be part of the American Rescue Plan Congress passed on March 10. The Senate had to remove that provision from the bill for technical reasons. Biden also favors a $15 minimum wage, but he has acknowledged the votes aren’t there in the Senate, suggesting he’d accept a smaller hike. Sanders doesn’t accept that, and he has vowed to push for a new bill to raise the minimum to $15, even if the votes aren’t there. This could be a fight among Democrats for the next 18 months.

Sanders recently introduced two proposed tax hikes that would also go further than Biden. One bill would raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 35%, which was the rate before the Trump tax cut law of 2017 lowered it. Biden wants to raise the corporate tax rate as well, to 28%. Analysts think even that would be tough in the Senate, where there may be only enough votes to go as high as 25% or 26%.

Another Sanders' bill would sharply lower the threshold at which inheritance taxes kick in, and raise the tax rate from 40% to as much as 65% for the biggest estates. Biden would lower the threshold to the same level as Sanders, but only raise the tax rate to 45%, for all estates. Sanders also backs legislation to impose a wealth tax on “ultramillionaires” worth $50 million or more. Biden doesn’t support a wealth tax.

Sanders’ influence is important because the president doesn’t write the laws, Congress does. Biden can propose draft legislation and enlist Capitol Hill allies to formally introduce it. But committee chairs like Sanders control what makes it into final legislation. No committee chair can force an entire chamber to pass a given bill, but he or she can influence the outcome through negotiation and pressure.

Sanders obviously lost the minimum wage battle, or at least the first round of it. But he has won a few other battles more stealthily. The $1.8 trillion American Rescue Plan ended up being bigger than many analysts expected, in part because of Sanders. It included liberal priorities he backs such as a pension bailout that will mainly benefit unionized workers, a substantial hike in the child tax credit and an expansion of health care subsidies. Biden doesn’t oppose those moves, and other members of Congress pushed for them too. But Sanders had “the greatest impact on the script itself,” according to Politico.

Sanders supports many issues that have little chance of being enacted. But his strategy is to shift the so-called Overton window on those issues and make some liberal policies more likely by pushing the whole range of discussion to the left. Legislation coming later this year will test whether he can succeed on the most visible issues, on a permanent basis.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden talk at the tenth Democratic 2020 presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden talk at the tenth Democratic 2020 presidential debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The infrastructure legislation Biden is pushing will include more than $2 trillion in new programs, and tax hikes to finance at least some of it. Sanders will clearly push for the most aggressive hikes possible on businesses and the wealthy. Sanders backs the Green New Deal (GND), which would force abrupt changes in the way people get around, heat and cool their homes and manage other parts of their lives. The GND would also pair aggressive climate action with guaranteed jobs and health care and benefits for everybody. Biden says he doesn’t support the GND, because it goes too far.

Another big issue on which Sanders and Biden differ is health care. Sanders is a champion of “Medicare for all,” a giant government-run health plan that would replace private insurance. Biden opposes that, saying we should leave private insurance in place and expand government programs on the margins for people falling through the cracks. Those differences could also flare as Congress prepares legislation on “social infrastructure” likely to include health care reforms.

As with the $15 minimum wage, Sanders’ pet policies will be mostly too radical for Congress to approve. But as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders could slip more limited social- and economic-justice provisions into coming legislation. Biden, for his part, won’t sign liberal provisions into law if they’d break campaign promises he made to moderate voters. But he probably doesn’t mind giving Sanders partial wins on certain issues. It’s a rivalry both politicians seem able to live with.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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