Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 1, 2015

Bernie Sanders’ New Title: Dealmaker

Sanders and Miller hold a news conference announcing the VA deal Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sanders and Miller hold a news conference announcing the VA deal Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Bernard Sanders didn’t seem a likely suspect to bridge Washington’s toxic partisan divide and cut one of the most significant deals in years.

But the Senate’s lone socialist and a potential 2016 presidential candidate did just that — negotiating a deal over the weekend to tackle wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs and clear his biggest legislative test since he took over the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee gavel last year.

The Vermont independent’s compromise with House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would provide $17 billion to the agency with $5 billion offset with savings and fees elsewhere. In a brief interview after a Monday news conference announcing the deal, Sanders reflected on the difficulty of the deal.

“I learned that it’s very, very, very hard; that there are a lot of moving parts; that there a lot of people you have to pay attention to,” he said. “In this case with the VA, the administration, the Democrats, with Republicans and a whole lot of individuals within those entities. It’s tough stuff.”

So often, Sanders has been on the outside looking in, railing against the powers that be — like when he gave an eight-and-a-half hour speech on the Senate floor in 2010 torching the extension of tax cuts as “Robin Hood in reverse.” The speech, which generated widespread attention and is also known as the “filiBernie,” was published as a book in 2011.

But Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist and caucuses with the Democratic Party, said he wants to legislate, not just pontificate. He attributes his negotiating skills to his time as the first socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt.

“When I took office, people who supported me on the city council, we had two out of 13 and I had to make things happen while being in the minority, so I do know how to negotiate fairly,” Sanders said. “Negotiation is part of the political process. I certainly have been prepared to do that since day one.”

Asked how he balances his progressive views with his role as a legislator, Sanders said there is no recipe. “I do the best I can,” he said.

With regard to the VA, Sanders pushed hard for expanding the agency’s own facilities — and wanted to ensure that veterans weren’t used as pawns in the ongoing spending fight between the parties.

“By which I mean [Republicans would say], ‘Yeah, we will fund veterans health care, but we will cut Head Start or education,” Sanders said. “That I did not want to see, and that did not happen.'”

Sanders repeatedly said he believes that most Americans think taking care of veterans is part of the cost of war. And he had an advantage, given that failure to act would have been bad politically for both parties.

During the news conference, Sanders was quick to note how rare a deal — any deal — is in Washington.

“The United States Congress today, in my view, is a dysfunctional institution,” he said. “There is major issue after major issue where virtually nothing is happening.

“The important point is we are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress,” Sanders said. “I am proud of what we have accomplished.”

The deal is one of the biggest expansions of government since the GOP takeover of the House, with $10 billion to launch a program to allow veterans to seek private medical care if they have unreasonable wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a facility.

The compromise also includes $5 billion for additional doctors, nurses and upgrades to facilities, although not nearly as much as Sanders wanted.

“I think we are [to] going have to be back discussing these very same issues sooner than I would liked to have seen,” he said.

But the deal also included funding to extend a scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty, a bipartisan provision to let all veterans qualify for in-state tuition under the Post-9/11 GI bill, and language that extends an about-to-expire program that provides housing for veterans who are struggling with traumatic brain injuries.

Sanders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored a veterans measure that passed the Senate last month, heaped praise on each other.

“John and I see the world very, very differently,” Sanders said. “But John made it clear that it was vitally important that this legislation be passed; that it would be an obscenity if it were not passed by the time we got out of here for recess.”

McCain reciprocated in a statement of his own, saying Sanders’ “tenacity and passion on behalf of America’s veterans cannot be questioned.”

The deal nearly didn’t happen, after talks collapsed last week over Republican objections to adding funds funds for doctors, nurses and facility improvements.

Miller, who had acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson before his panel on July 24, had argued it made no sense to provide the agency funding for that purpose because it already had job openings that it couldn’t fill.

Miller offered Sanders $10 billion for veterans to seek private care, as well as for leases and authorization for 27 new major VA medical facilities. But Sanders rebuffed the offer and rejected calls from Miller to convene the conference.

Sanders and Miller agreed to restart talks over the weekend.

Asked late last week what it was like negotiating with the Senate’s foremost liberal, a visibly frustrated Miller said jokingly, and somewhat angrily: “Wonderful.”

But jokes aside, Miller said there is no personal animus between the two.

At the news conference Monday, Miller warmly thanked Sanders for “working in good faith throughout the entire process.”

“Sen. Sanders and I differ about certain things, but one thing we do agree about is that the veterans of this country deserve the best quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion,” Miller said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this article.


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  • telmog

    Congratulations Sen. Sanders!

  • SactoSteve

    See, it can work. But I’m waiting for the Tea Party to step in and stop it.


    Senator Boehner has been a huge disappointment and a source of so many problems in the senate. He has single handedly caused the misery of more than three million unemployed families still without an unemployment extension since late last December. While these families waited patiently for an extension bill to be passed, the senator worked feverously to kill the bill by delaying the vote until it became almost impossible to pass. Instead of fighting for the unemployed, Mr.. Boehner fought for the Koch Brothers Oil pipeline bill to be passed. Clearly, the republican party represents the wealthy, and powerful in our country, not the common man. There are Still three million unemployed families in financial ruin due to the republican party’s total failure to help these needy families. They are without conscience and compassion.

    • docbets

      Who in the world are you talking about? There is no Senator Boehner.

    • JD Mulvey

      You mean “Speaker Boehner,” but the rest of your post is exactly right.

    • Dennis J. Callahan

      Yonatan…you are an idiot…..ask Senator Reid how many bills he has held up in the Senate and not brought them for a vote. Don’t blame the Republicans for the incompetence of the Democrats…

      • Billy Howell

        I keep hearing that Reid has too, but I would like to see an actual list of the bills that Reid hasn’t allowed to come up for a vote. IF a good portion of them are repeals of the ACA, then even a conservative should see that the arguments aren’t the same. Asking for a vote on the same issue over and over again is not the same as asking for a vote on different issues that haven’t been decided. Notice that I said, “IF,” though.

      • Billy Howell

        I keep hearing that Reid has too, but I would like to see an actual list of the bills that Reid hasn’t allowed to come up for a vote. IF a good portion of them are repeals of the ACA, then even a conservative should see that the arguments aren’t the same. Asking for a vote on the same issue over and over again is not the same as asking for a vote on different issues that haven’t been decided. Notice that I said, “IF,” though.

  • Lorry frey

    Senator has been out in front as a progressive but getting something done is always the proof of the pudding. Glad to see him getting it done. Talk is cheap.

  • JD Mulvey

    It’s a mistake to assume that because Senator Sanders has progressive views, he’s “unlikely” to make a deal that benefits the country. In fact, he’s rarely advocated positions that were anything but pragmatic and sensible

    No one should be required to check their beliefs at the door in order to negotiate. It’s certainly not a requirement that’s imposed on conservatives, is it?

  • chefbrucewest

    It’s simple math. There’s n1 trillion dollars and more for 2 wars but Congress and the Senate can’t find 20 billion for those who sacrificed life and limb for our nation?

  • don76550

    He is still an anti American lying communist to me

    • JD Mulvey

      Sticking up for Americans sure is anti-American, isn’t it?

      • don76550

        Comrade Sanders does not stick up for Americans. He is anti american

        • JD Mulvey

          Did you read the article you’re commenting on? You should try that before you say things that make you look like a fool.

          • don76550

            Have you followed the career of this anti American communist? I have

          • JD Mulvey

            You obviously don’t know what America means.

          • don76550

            Actually I do. I spent 27 years in the military protecting the right of liberal asswipes like to to pimp for a communist senator.

          • JD Mulvey

            27 years and didn’t learn a thing.

  • NJHope

    Senator Sanders has been a well respected advocate of all of us, for many years. I am not in his state, but I follow his votes, his words, his actions, and I say to the HOUSE REPUBLICANS, you should be so ethical. Not once have I heard or seen any actions from Bernie Sanders that did not completely support the American citizen and their needs, their path to a better future, and sustainability. He fights to get them jobs, educated, and health care supports that are so drastically needed. Anyone who wants to ignore these truths is simply entrenched in dogmatic blindness.

  • jjcasablanca

    I would like to know where the $ 5 billion that is going to be offset will come from
    what programs will get less and what new fees will be imposed, Very happy for

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