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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) talks to reporters while leaving the U.S. Capitol on August 9, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

'It's Gonna Be $3.5 Trillion': Sanders Holds the Line Against Right-Wing Democrats

"That's the compromise that's already been made," said Sen. Bernie Sanders. "The truth is $3.5 trillion is not enough."

Kenny Stancil

Pushing back against conservative Democrats' attempts to shrink the Build Back Better Act's price tag, Sen. Bernie Sanders reiterated Tuesday night that anything less than $3.5 trillion is unacceptable.

"When you look at the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, we're talking about close to $300 trillion over the next 10 years. This is $3.5 trillion, barely more than 1% of that."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

Asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper how the size of the reconciliation package will be decided, Sanders (I-Vt.) said, "It's gonna be $3.5 trillion."

"That's the compromise that's already been made," said Sanders, referring to the fact that progressive lawmakers would prefer to invest at least $6 trillion to mitigate inequality and carbon pollution. Last month, House and Senate Democrats passed a budget resolution greenlighting $3.5 trillion in spending to improve social welfare, strengthen labor rights, provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, and bolster climate action.

"The truth is $3.5 trillion is not enough," Sanders argued Tuesday, listing several items—including child care, pre-K, and affordable housing—that many congressional Democrats want to spend more on but can't due to self-imposed constraints.

With Democrats hoping to vote on the package by the end of the month, details of the Build Back Better Act are starting to emerge. So far, however, progressives have been disappointed by House Democrats' plan to tax the rich at a lower level than President Joe Biden proposed earlier this year and to maintain billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies. In addition, three corporate Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee threatened to derail the legislation if it includes a key provision to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices.

The bill is facing a major counter-offensive from corporate lobbyists, but it can be passed without Republican support in the House and, in the upper chamber, through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process as long as all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus vote for it.

Sanders, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, put the Build Back Better Act into a broader context during his interview with Cooper.

"When you look at the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, we're talking about close to $300 trillion over the next 10 years," he said. "This is $3.5 trillion, barely more than 1% of that."

"Furthermore," Sanders continued, "if I have anything to say about it, this legislation will be paid for [and] will not add to the national debt."

The reconciliation package "will be paid for," added the Vermont Independent, "by finally demanding that the wealthiest people in this country, who in some years pay zero... in federal taxes," along with "large corporations [that] pay nothing in federal taxes," contribute more to the public coffers.

Citing a recent analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, journalist David Moore wrote last week in Sludge that—when accounting for revenue raised through tax hikes on wealthy individuals and corporations, and when spreading out spending over a decade—the annual net cost of the Build Back Better Act is estimated to be between $100 billion and $175 billion per year, "less than the roughly $188 billion that the U.S. paid in 2020 to just three defense contractors: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing."

Right-wing Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.)—as well as other deficit hawks who voted for last year's Pentagon budget—helped send more public money to a few weapons makers than the annual net cost of the reconciliation bill they claim is too expensive, Stephen Semler of the Security Policy Reform Institute pointed out recently.

Sanders on Wednesday also drew attention to Washington's skewed priorities. "There's endless amounts of money," he noted, "when we go to war" and when it comes to "tax breaks for billionaires... But when we want to support working American families, suddenly we don't have enough money."

The American Prospect's David Dayen reported Wednesday that due to obstruction from Manchin and Sinema, who have "decided that they must have a cap on both spending and revenues," Democratic lawmakers are being forced to have "difficult conversations" about "whether to live with less on every policy in the Build Back Better Act, or to jettison some and make sure the policies remaining actually work and are politically potent."

"When we want to support working American families, suddenly we don't have enough money."

For instance, the Biden administration called for investing $400 billion to improve Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS). Based on the House Energy and Commerce Committee markup of the bill, however, less than $200 billion would be allocated to HCBS. Without adequate funding, pay increases for the low-wage home care workforce would be unlikely, undermining the prospect of better services sought by disability rights groups and advocates for the elderly.

Democrats, Dayen wrote, must now decide if they are willing to accept cuts and delays to a litany of proposed programs, "making them in some cases not work for a lot of people, or they can decide to do a few things well."

Biden, meanwhile, is coming under fire from critics in his own party for not playing a more active and obvious role in championing the popular Build Back Better Act. Notably, his relatively hands-off or behind-the-scenes approach to the Democrats' $3.5 trillion social infrastructure package stands in contrast to his strong public push earlier this summer for the bipartisan, $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the fossil fuel-friendly physical infrastructure bill passed last month by the Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—with the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the president—is pursuing a "two-track" strategy that advances both pieces of legislation simultaneously, linking each bill's fate to the other.

Dayen and other critics have made the case that last month's unsuccessful effort by a small group of conservative House Democrats, who are bankrolled by Big Pharma and Big Oil, to decouple the two measures and extract an expedited vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill was a thinly veiled attempt, backed by Manchin and Sinema, to kill the social safety net and climate provisions contained in the reconciliation package.

Sanders warned last weekend that due to right-wing congressional Democrats' opposition to the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act—the passage of which at least 17 progressive House Democrats have said is a prerequisite to voting for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—the danger remains that both pieces of legislation could fail.

"It would really be a terrible, terrible shame for the American people," if that happens, said Sanders.

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