Bernie’s Role in the $2 Trillion Coronavirus Bill
How the Vermont Senator secured a victory for America’s struggling working class
Well, it finally happened. The Senate passed a $2 trillion dollar relief package meant to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic with a historic 96–0 vote. The plan includes direct payments, expansions in unemployment assistance, increased funding to the health system, more money to local and state governments, and make money available for small business loans — some of which will be available for forgiveness.
The House is due to vote on the issue tomorrow (Friday, March 26), and the White House administration has signaled that President Trump would immediately sign the bill when passed.
But in the meantime, it’s worth examining how — after a long and partisan political battle–this bill got through the Senate, and the role played by Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders.
Accusations of ‘All Talk’
Sanders has, time and time again, been attacked by his colleagues for having ‘big talk, but no action.’ Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was reportedly close with Sanders until recently, has brought up this point.
“I get real stuff done. I have rock solid values and I get stuff done. I get hard stuff done,” Warren responded when asked about the difference between her and Sanders. “I don’t want to be president just to yell at people, I want to be president to change things.”
Bernie Sanders has publicly acknowledged that he has stood alone on many issues for decades. “I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, mounted some lonely campaigns,” Sanders said. He added, “I do not feel lonely now.”
The criticisms of Warren and others also seem more to be criticisms of Sanders’ refusal to concede on his values. “This crisis demands more than a senator who has good ideas,” Warren said on another occasion, “but whose 30-year track record shows he consistently calls for things he fails to get done and consistently opposes things he nevertheless fails to stop.”
What exactly is the issue here? That Sanders still stands up even when he knows he’s going to lose?
Even among Sanders’ detractors on Capitol Hill, there’s an understanding that someone’s impact can’t be measured in the number of bills or amendments you get passed. After years of being dubbed the “amendment king,” filing over 500 between his years in House and Senate, Sanders changed tactics to using outside pressure to shift legislative agendas.
Sanders’ dealings with the coronavirus relief bill show all the hallmarks of the style we’ve come to expect from him — and also shows how critical his approach can be.
Yesterday, the relief bill appeared to stall as four Republican senators — Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, Ben Sasse, and Rick Scott — threatened to hold up the bill, citing opposition that increases to unemployment insurance could end up increasing some unemployed workers’ typical income. Senator Sasse then introduced an amendment saying benefits couldn’t exceed previous pay.
It’s unclear what might have happened if Sanders had not stepped in. It’s seems that Republicans could have succeeded in capping unemployment benefits for the most vulnerable Americans, given the body’s rush to pass something by last night and get it over to the House for a vote.
Instead, Sanders threatened to delay the bill if the Republican senators did not drop their opposition. He said he was prepared to hold the bill up to lobby for tighter restrictions on companies receiving aid from a taxpayer pool of $500 billion.
Sanders then took to the Senate floor in a furious speech over the issue. Mocking the Republican Senators, he said, “Somebody who’s making 12 bucks an hour now, like the rest of us, faces an unprecedented economic crisis. With the $600 bucks on top of their normal, their regular unemployment check, might be making a few bucks more for four months. Oh my word! Will the universe survive?” (Watch the video of his speech here.)
Ultimately, the amendment put forward by Sasse was defeated, and the bill passed the Senate without a single vote against.
At the same time as Sanders was giving a last-minute needed push to the Senate bill, he’s also been pushing his own coronavirus plan. Sanders is calling for the government to cover business’s payroll costs, similar to what has been done in Denmark, and provide $2,000 cash payments to every American every month, as well as expanding unemployment insurance and — crucially–making COVID-19 testing, treatment, and eventual vaccines free. (You can find the full, comprehensive plan here.)
Sanders’ approach to the COVID-19 crisis paints the opposite picture that his opponents attacked him for on the campaign trail. Instead of being a rigid ideologue who insists on his plan and only his plan, he put forward his ideas at the same time as relentlessly pushing for and trying to improve the existing bill.
From Long Shot to Longer Shot
Despite Sanders being front-and-center trying to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become clear that his shot at winning the Democratic nomination for President is much less likely than it was even a few weeks ago. Sanders’ base is made up of working-class people and youth, folks that normally wouldn’t take the time to vote because they don’t feel represented. These people are even less likely to vote by mail or risk voting in primaries that haven’t been cancelled already.
Joe Biden swept recent primaries in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona last week as states waffled over whether or not to still hold their primaries on time. (The DNC, for their part, threatened to purge delegates from states that postpone their primary.) Biden, though, has been criticized for disappearing for a week as the coronavirus crisis revealed itself. The only explanation given by his team was that they were dealing with technical challenges of an online campaign — for example, Biden’s low ceilings.
Over the past several weeks, it’s become clear the kind of leader America needs. Sanders shifted his campaign to all-remote work like phonebanking within just days and then headed for the Hill. Reporters asked if he was dropping out, and Sanders had this to say:
“You have to stop with this. I’m dealing with a f*cking global crisis. You know? We’re dealing with it and you’re asking me these questions. Right now I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die. Is that enough to you? To keep you busy for today?” (source)
Sanders’ quick turnaround in this crisis, his broad pro-worker coronavirus plan, and his refusal to allow carveouts to hurt the most vulnerable Americans, shows the kind of leadership America needs.
We can only hope voters remember it, if and when the primaries continue.