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At Kentucky Rally, Sanders Blasts McConnell for 'Working Overtime' to Reward the Rich and Block Progress

"If Senator McConnell and Republicans in the Senate continue their strategy of obstructionism, it means passing a progressive agenda through the Senate with 51 votes."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a rally on March 26, 2021.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during a rally on March 26, 2021. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders traveled to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's home state of Kentucky on Sunday to slam the GOP chieftain for "working overtime to represent the needs of the wealthy" while obstructing legislation that would expand healthcare, slash poverty, and strengthen voting rights.

"As we speak, Senator McConnell is leading the effort against the long-term structural changes that working people in Kentucky and throughout our country desperately need," Sanders (I-Vt.) said during a rally in Louisville with Charles Booker, a former state representative who is hinting at a bid to unseat Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

"It's a question of whose interests the government represents. It's a question of whether you fight for the needs of the wealthy and large corporations who fund your campaigns, or the working families of our country."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

"How does it happen that Mitch McConnell is working overtime to block legislation that would improve the lives of so many working-class people in Kentucky, while he is doing everything that he can to make the richest people in America even richer? And the answer is pretty simple: Follow the money," the Vermont senator said, pointing to McConnell's well-known history of raising money from Wall Street banks, insurance giants, and fossil fuel companies.

Noting that McConnell still wields significant power in the narrowly divided Senate despite losing control of the chamber in January, Sanders said Democrats must be willing to use the procedural tools at their disposal to bypass Republican obstruction and approve ambitious legislation to tackle the country's myriad crises, from Covid-19 to climate change.

"If Republicans refuse to work with us, if Senator McConnell and Republicans in the Senate continue their strategy of obstructionism, it means passing a progressive agenda through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of 60, by using budget reconciliation," said Sanders. "And I say that as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. The American people are hurting, they want action and we have got to deliver for them."

"And when my Republican colleagues complain about this approach, let me remind them: When Mitch McConnell was the majority leader, he used the reconciliation process to pass trillions of dollars in tax breaks primarily to the top one percent and multinational corporations," the Vermont senator added, referring to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. "He used reconciliation to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

Specifically, Sanders called on the Democratic Senate to pass a $15 minimum wage, allow Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, lower the Medicare eligibility age and expand its benefits, cancel student loan debt, and make public colleges and universities tuition-free.

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"The difference in ideology between Senator McConnell and myself, between the Republican Party and the progressive movement, is not a question of big government versus small government," said Sanders. "That's not what it's really about. It's a question of whose interests the government represents. It's a question of whether you fight for the needs of the wealthy and large corporations who fund your campaigns, or the working families of our country."

Sanders' push for unilateral Democratic action to advance a sweeping legislative agenda comes as the Biden White House is reportedly signaling to Republican lawmakers in private that it is willing to make concessions on its $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal in an effort to win bipartisan support—an approach likely to frustrate progressive leaders in Congress.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that "some Democrats are hunting for a framework to sell the infrastructure proposals that doesn't sound too liberal, hoping to frame it as what they call 'bold moderation,' which they hope might be less objectionable to centrists of both parties."

But Sanders, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and other congressional progressives have implored Biden not to weaken the infrastructure bill in a potentially futile bid to win support from a party that has vocally bashed the proposal and offered a vague alternative that's just a fraction of the size.

Last month, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that Democrats can pass additional bills this year through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process, whereby legislation can pass with a simple-majority vote. To pass legislation through regular order, Democrats would need to win over at least 10 Senate Republicans.

"If Senator McConnell could use the reconciliation process to give tax breaks to billionaires," Sanders said Sunday, "we can use that same process to protect the interests of working families."

"If you believe in a vibrant democracy and not authoritarianism," Sanders continued, "if you believe that all Americans are entitled to economic security and that we must stand with the working families of this country, if you believe that all people, regardless of race, country of origin or sexual orientation are entitled to equal justice, if you believe in environmental sanity and the need to combat climate change, the choice is clear."

Read Sanders' full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Let me thank all of you for being here today. Hopefully next time we can do away with the masks and social distancing

I also want to thank Charles Booker for his remarks and, more importantly, for the great Senate campaign he ran last year which electrified the country. Despite being heavily outspent, he showed what energy and grassroots activism can achieve. And, boy, do we need progressive voices like Charles' is the U.S. Senate.

I'm also delighted to return to the Muhammad Ali Museum. Muhammad Ali was a personal hero of mine.

But the reason I'm here today is not just to say hello to Charles or to remember Muhammad Ali.

I'm here for a very simple reason. The senior senator from the state of Kentucky, Mitch McConnell, is not just Kentucky's senator. Until a few months ago he was the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and now he is the Minority Leader. In other words, he is today the highest ranking Republican elected official in the country—a man with enormous power.

And what I want to do now, which we just don't do often enough, is to compare Senator McConnell's ideology, his Republican ideology, his votes, his actions, his vision for the future of America with the progressive vision—a vision which demands that government represent all of the people, and not just the 1% and wealthy campaign contributors. A vision which believes that the foundations of government should rest on the pillars of justice: economic justice, racial justice, social justice and environmental justice.

In order to make an effective comparison, let me begin by telling you what you already know. We are living in an unprecedented moment in American history, a moment that our kids and grandchildren will be reading about in their history books.

We have endured the worst public health crisis in more than 100 years with almost 600,000 Covid related deaths, and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  

We have seen millions of Americans marching in the streets to end systemic racism and police brutality—something that, unfortunately, the people of Louisville are more than familiar with. 

We continue to confront the existential threat to our planet of climate change, with the future of the planet literally at stake.

And we have lived through a violent insurrection against our democracy in the nation’s Capitol and a strong right-wing movement toward authoritarianism.

Today, in Kentucky, in Vermont and throughout our country, over half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck and millions are employed at starvation wages. Some 90 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured and cannot afford to go to a doctor, and one out of four Americans cannot pay for the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs.

Despite an extremely competitive global economy, hundreds of thousands of working class young people are unable to afford college and many millions are struggling with outrageous levels of student debt.

Over half a million Americans are homeless, gentrification is sweeping the country, 18 million households are spending at least 50% of their limited incomes on housing and millions worry about eviction.

Unbelievably, in the United States of America, we have seen working families all over this country, including in my own city of Burlington, Vermont waiting in car lines for emergency food packages to feed their families.  

In terms of education millions of young people, including my 7 grandchildren, have been forced to miss classes because of the pandemic and the unprecedented disruption of education in this country.

This has been, by far, the worst and most painful year in the modern history of America.

But let’s be clear. Not everyone has been hurting in our country. While tens of millions of Americans have been living in economic desperation, the very rich have become obscenely richer. 

During this horrific pandemic, 650 billionaires in America have increased their wealth by more than a trillion dollars. In America today, two people now own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent while the top one percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 92 percent of our people.

Brothers and sisters: This is a pivotal moment in American history. 

In the coming months, we have a fundamental decision to make.  

Will we build a government, an economy and a society that works for all of us and not just the 1 percent? 

Or will we continue the drift towards oligarchy and authoritarianism in which a small number of incredibly wealthy and powerful billionaires own and control a significant part of the economy and exert enormous influence over the political life of our country?

That is the fundamental question of our time.

I'm here today in Kentucky not just because Mitch McConnell is a Republican or the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate.  

I'm here today because Mitch McConnell is working overtime to represent the needs of the wealthy and the powerful and to undermine the needs of working families, the elderly, the sick, the children and the poor.

I'm proud to tell you, as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, I worked hard with President Biden to pass the American Rescue Plan that provided a $1,400 direct payment to every working class adult in America and their children—including over 4 million people right here in Kentucky.

This legislation is cutting the child poverty rate in half by providing a tax credit of up to $3,600 that is directly benefiting over a million kids in Kentucky.

This legislation is substantially reducing hunger in America.  

It is providing an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits to more than 100,000 people in Kentucky alone who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.  

It is preventing millions of families from being thrown out of their homes and onto the streets.  

And I am proud to tell you that the American Rescue Plan is preventing over 24,000 coal miners and Teamsters in Kentucky from seeing their pensions slashed by up to 60 percent. 

But I am not proud to tell you that Mitch McConnell led the effort against that bill and was able to convince every Republican in the Senate and the House to oppose it. We passed that bill at 5 o'clock in the morning, with Vice President Harris casting the tie breaking vote. 

And let’s be clear: it's not just the American Rescue Plan that Mitch McConnell opposed.  

As we speak, Senator McConnell is leading the effort against the long term structural changes that working people in Kentucky and throughout our country desperately need.

He is leading the effort against a $15 minimum wage.

He is leading the effort against universal childcare, paid family and medical leave and making it easier for workers to join unions. 

He is leading the effort against H.R. 1, legislation fundamental to preserving our democracy—legislation which will end voter suppression, make it easier for people to vote and get big money out of politics.

And this I will never forget. On New Year's Eve, Mitch McConnell blocked legislation I was offering to provide working class Americans with a $2,000 direct payment because, get this, he claimed it was "socialism for the rich."

I'm serious. That's what he said. This is a man who had no problem giving a $129 million tax refund check to Amazon as a result of the 2017 tax bill he championed. He had no problem giving the Charles Koch family, a family worth $126 billion and a major campaign contributor to the Republican Party, a $1.4 billion tax break.

In Mitch McConnell's world if you are a multi-billionaire campaign contributor, it's OK to receive a $1.4 billion tax break.  That’s how the system works. But if you are a teacher or a construction worker who makes $75,000 a year, a $2,000 direct payment is "socialism for the rich."

Well, the good news is that we won that battle.  Working class adults and their kids got the full $2,000 direct payment that they deserved and which is helping to grow our economy.

But when we look at Senator McConnell and his Republican ideology, it's not just what he's doing now. It's what he's done in the recent past. Under Trump, he led the effort to try and take health care away from up to 32 million Americans and to substantially raise the premiums of older Americans by repealing the Affordable Care Act. Can you imagine that? We are the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care for all, and McConnell wanted to throw millions off the health care they had.

At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, Mitch McConnell led the effort to provide a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top one percent and large corporations.

He led the effort to allow billionaires and corporations to buy elections through his strong advocacy of Citizens United, the disastrous Supreme Court decision.

Now, the question that I think people should be asking is why is Mitch McConnell doing what he is doing?

How does it happen that Mitch McConnell is working overtime to block legislation that would improve the lives of so many working-class people in Kentucky, while he is doing everything that he can to make the richest people in America even richer?

And the answer is pretty simple: Follow the money.

Over the course of his career, Senator McConnell has received huge campaign contributions from Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chasefrom health insurance companies like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, United Healthcare and Humana—from pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Pfizer - from fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries and Marathon Petroleum, and of course, from Walmart and the NRA. 

And what do these huge corporations and special interest groups oppose?

They oppose raising the minimum wage to a living wage. And so does Mitch.

They oppose guaranteeing healthcare as a human right. And so does Mitch. 

They oppose taking any action to lower the outrageous prices Americans pay for prescription drugs.  And so does Mitch. 

They oppose passing any legislation to combat climate change. And so does Mitch.

The NRA has given over $1.2 million in campaign contributions to Mitch McConnell—and they oppose every piece of gun safety legislation that has ever been introduced. 

And what do Senator McConnell’s campaign contributors support?   

They support huge tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations.

They support deregulating Wall Street and they strongly supported the Wall Street bailout.

They support cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. 

In other words, Mitch McConnell’s top campaign contributors want to do the exact opposite of what the overwhelming majority of the American people want us to do and so does Mitch McConnell.

Well, needless to say, I view the world a little bit differently than Mitch McConnell.

I believe that it is imperative that we demonstrate to the American people that our government can effectively respond to their needs and restore the dignity that they deserve.  

Whether Senator McConnell likes it or not, now is the time to create an economy and a government that works for all of us, not just the billionaire class and wealthy campaign contributors.

What does that mean in real concrete terms?

It means that we must raise the federal minimum wage from a starvation wage of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour and give 32 million workers a much needed raise. In the United States of America a job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.

It means creating a full-employment economy by creating millions of good-paying jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, building affordable housing, modernizing our schools, combating climate change and making massive investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

It means ending the international embarrassment of the United States being the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care as a right or provide paid family and medical leave to workers.  

Yes. As we continue the fight for Medicare for All, we must substantially reduce the eligibility age for Medicare, and expand it to include hearing, vision and dental care.  It is a moral obscenity that millions of senior citizens cannot afford hearing aids, eyeglasses or dentures. 

Yes, we must provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.  If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that health care must be a human right, not an employee benefit.

It means taking on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and substantially reducing the price of prescription drugs.  The American people cannot continue to pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.  We can no longer tolerate one out of five Americans not being able to afford the life-saving medicine prescribed by their doctors.  It is time for Medicare and the federal government to do what every major country on earth does: Negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the outrageous prices of prescription drugs.  

It means making public colleges, universities, trade schools and HBCUs tuition free and canceling student debt for working families. If we are going to have the best educated workforce in the world, we cannot continue to punish an entire generation of young Americans with a lifetime of student debt for "the crime" of doing the right thing—getting a college education.

It means making pre-kindergarten and childcare universal and available to every family in America. In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we cannot continue to neglect toddlers and young kids.

It means making it easier for workers to join unions so that they can negotiate for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

It means that we must make it easier, not harder, to vote, and prevent billionaires from buying politicians by moving to the public funding of elections. 

It means demanding that the wealthiest Americans and most profitable corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.  No. We cannot continue to allow large profitable corporations like Nike and Federal Express to make billions of dollars in profits and pay nothing in net federal income taxes over the past three years. We cannot continue to allow billionaires to pay a lower effective tax rate than teachers, truck drivers or nurses. We need real tax reform.

It means humane immigration reform and a path to citizenship. We can no longer tolerate children in this country living in fear that one day their parents will no longer be there for them when they come home from school.

It means ending systemic racism, creating real criminal justice reform and ending the disastrous war on drugs. Yes. We must legalize marijuana and expunge marijuana arrest records. We must abolish private prisons and detention centers and end cash bail. No more profiting off of locking people up and throwing them in jail.

And yes. If Republicans refuse to work with us, if Senator McConnell and Republicans in the Senate continue their strategy of obstructionism, it means passing a progressive agenda through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of 60, by using budget reconciliation. And I say that as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. The American people are hurting, they want action and we have got to deliver for them.

And when my Republican colleagues complain about this approach, let me remind them. When Mitch McConnell was the Majority Leader, he used the reconciliation process to pass trillions of dollars in tax breaks primarily to the top one percent and multinational corporations. He used reconciliation to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  

Further, he was able to confirm three right-wing Supreme Court judges over a very short period of time by a simple majority vote.

In my view, if Senator McConnell could use the reconciliation process to give tax breaks to billionaires, we can use that same process to protect the interests of working families.

My friends. The difference in ideology between Senator McConnell and myself, between the Republican Party and the progressive movement, is not a question of big government versus small government. That's not what it's really about. It's a question of whose interests the government represents. It's a question of whether you fight for the needs of the wealthy and large corporations who fund your campaigns, or the working families of our country, many of whom—Black, White, Latino, Asian American, Native American—are facing economic desperation.

The choice is very clear. If you believe in a vibrant democracy and not authoritarianism, if you believe that all Americans are entitled to economic security and that we must stand with the working families of this country, if you believe that all people, regardless of race, country of origin or sexual orientation are entitled to equal justice, if you believe in environmental sanity and the need to combat climate change, the choice is clear.

Let us go forward and build the progressive movement and create a government that works for all, and not just the few.

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