With a pronounced independent streak to match his political alignment, Bernie Sanders of Vermont may be another headache for Democrats trying to cobble together 60 votes for healthcare reform in the coming weeks.
At a time when most attention is being paid to the Senate's other, more well-known Independent, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, it is Sanders who could end up playing spoiler for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). As Reid struggles to find 60 votes that will unite on procedural votes, his party's centrists are pulling the healthcare bill politically rightward while Sanders is staking out a far-left position.
Asked if he will support Democrats on procedural votes once the healthcare bill hits the Senate floor, Sanders was repeatedly noncommital, twice telling The Hill that he intends to push for a bill that includes a government-run, public-option insurance component and refusing to guarantee his support on cloture votes.
"All I'll say for now is that I want the strongest public option possible in the bill," Sanders said. "Beyond that, we're going to have to look at what develops."
Pressed further, Sanders's office also offered no guarantees.
"He is pleased that Sen. Reid has said that the bill will include a public option and he looks forward to seeing the detailed legislation," said a Sanders spokesman.
Sanders caucuses with Democrats, and usually falls in line with the party's philosophy. But like Lieberman, he can stray on a whim - and on healthcare, his insistence on a public option may force Reid to reach out for another Republican vote even if all other Democrats support procedural votes.
In recent years, Sanders has bucked Democrats on procedural votes for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), on multiple immigration reform measures and on funding for U.S. troops in Iraq, among other issues. In all, a Washington Post voting scorecard shows him bucking Democrats on 10 cloture votes in 2007 alone.
Democratic leaders say Sanders behaves differently from the party's other centrists, such as Evan Bayh (Ind.), because Sanders at least usually notifies leadership whenever he intends to cast a procedural vote against leaders' wishes. Bayh often doesn't.
"Bayh surprises us," said one senior Democratic aide. "But we usually know what Sanders is thinking, and he's pretty consistent. We think he'll be with us when it matters."
Yet since Sanders usually follows the lead of Democratic leaders, other observers say he is likely simply being stubborn as part of an effort to win some kind of concession for his state, as many senators do.
"I'd be surprised if Sanders decided to be a thorn in the leadership's side on healthcare," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor who covers the Senate for The Cook Political Report. "On the big issues, he is generally with them."