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After four decades pushing for progressive change, Bernie Sanders now holds the gavel

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Durham, New Hampshire, on Monday, ahead of the state's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday. Photo by Anna Watts for VTDigger
Those who have followed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political career over the course of more than four decades are familiar with his progressive views. Now, as the new chair of the Senate’s influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he holds unprecedented power to make good on his promises. File photo by Anna Watts for VTDigger

Vermont’s senior U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is no stranger to the limelight and, by way of two presidential runs and 32 years in Congress, he has elevated his progressive politics — which date back to his early years as mayor of Burlington — to the forefront of American political discourse.

But this year, Sanders will occupy a new, immensely influential role — not on the election debate stage, but holding the gavel. With the swearing-in of a new Congress in January and the organization of Senate committees made final on Thursday, Sanders has now become chair of the body’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, or the HELP Committee, for short.

The panel is arguably among the most powerful committees in the upper chamber, and at its helm, Sanders holds his best chance yet of making headway on his longtime goals of lowering health care costs, chipping away at student loan debt, beefing up labor union protections and more.

“What is interesting about this committee is, it has enormous jurisdiction over many of the issues that impact the lives of people in Vermont and throughout this country,” Sanders told VTDigger in an interview Wednesday.

His power has limits, particularly in a divided Congress. As chair, he sets the committee’s schedule and drives the conversation, but can’t force members to OK his chosen bills, much less obtain a 60-vote supermajority for major legislation on the Senate floor. As he rattled off his priority items to VTDigger, Sanders often couched his proposals: “Now, I face the reality that we have a Republican House… Democrats have a one-vote majority in the Senate, and there are a couple of quite conservative Democrats. So what do we do?”

Vitally, as chair, Sanders can set the agenda for major hearings, and holds the power to subpoena high-profile witnesses, forcing them to testify. At the top of his list appears to be the pharmaceutical industry, or, as he dubs them, Big Pharma.

Asked if he plans to hold major accountability hearings on the pharmaceutical industry reminiscent of the Big Tobacco hearings of the ’90s, or more recently, the Big Oil hearings of 2021, Sanders answered slyly, “Stay tuned.”

The senator has already begun laying the groundwork. As Moderna’s plans to quadruple the price of its Covid-19 vaccine came to light in January, Sanders penned a letter to CEO Stéphane Bancel decrying the pharmaceutical manufacturer’s “unacceptable corporate greed.”

“In the midst of a deadly pandemic, restricting access to this much needed vaccine is unconscionable,” Sanders wrote in January.

Sanders on Wednesday acknowledged that Congress’s partisan breakdown is not in his favor, and achieving his dream of Medicare for All “is not going to happen tomorrow.” But, he said, “I think in this country right now, whether you’re a progressive as I am or you’re a conservative, you understand that the cost of prescription drugs is totally outrageous.”

“We’ve made some incremental, minor changes, good changes. But really, I think the time is long overdue — and the American people want us to do it — to take on the greed and often illegal behavior of the pharmaceutical industry, and I intend to do that,” Sanders said. “We’re going to move very aggressively in that area.”

Another area in which he hopes to find bipartisan agreement: addressing the health care sector’s workforce shortage. Thanks to a shortage of in-state staff nurses, Annie Mackin, a spokesperson for the University of Vermont Medical Center, told VTDigger that the hospital system spent more than $100 million in Fiscal Year 2022 on measures to help fill a critical nursing shortage, such as hiring expensive travel nurses and offering incentives to staffers.

On Wednesday, Sanders told VTDigger that UVM’s travel nurse bill amounts to “an unbelievable sum of money” that could be avoided with the help of the feds by investing heavily into educating prospective staff nurses, as well as doctors, dentists and more. The senator also said he wants to put a special focus on recruiting more people of color into the medical profession.

It’s not just the medical field feeling the workforce crunch. Sanders noted that in Vermont and across the country, there’s a substantial shortage of teachers.

“All over the country, teachers are fleeing the profession because of low pay, because of really bad working conditions, because of not getting the kind of classroom support that they need — not to mention some rightwing attacks,” Sanders said.

Those who have followed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political career over the course of more than four decades are familiar with his progressive views. Now, as the new chair of the Senate’s influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he holds unprecedented power to make good on his promises. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

He vowed that he has legislation coming soon devoted to recruiting and retaining educators “so that, once again, young, bright college students want to go into education.” Asked for details on what that bill would look like, he said, “Well, it’s complicated and we’re working on it right now.”

Also top of the senator’s mind for the second letter of the HELP Committee’s acronym is school infrastructure. Vitally for Vermont, he said he sees a role for the federal government to play in cleaning up polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in schools

“It goes without saying that we want young people in this country to be attending schools that, of course, are healthy,” Sanders said. “There are schools in America where, literally, people can’t drink the water in the schools because there’s lead in the water. You have crumbling classrooms. So the issue of school infrastructure, including PCBs, is something that must be addressed.”

Also on the education front is Sanders’ oft-repeated priority item of addressing the nation’s student debt balloon. “We will see how the Supreme Court rules on (President Joe) Biden’s proposal” to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for certain borrowers, Sanders said. “If they reject it, if they overturn it, we will take that issue up.”

Touching on both education and labor, Sanders said he’s eager to tackle the “crisis” of early childhood education and child care, calling it “a horrible situation in Vermont, equally horrible all over the country,” in which “working parents cannot find high quality, affordable child care and the workers that work in childcare are terribly paid.” (Vermont state lawmakers, too, are poised to take action on child care.)

And on labor, Sanders said a top priority is to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour, where it has lingered since 2009, to a “living wage.” Sanders has in years past pushed to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and in a Sunday appearance on MSNBC, he said that with inflation, that number should be closer to $17 per hour today. Sanders also wants to pass the PRO Act, which would protect workers’ rights to organize labor unions. He pointed to corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, which he alleged have “engaged in illegal union busting activities.”

“I want to deal with that,” Sanders said Wednesday. It was shortly after his Moderna missive that Sanders sent a similarly heated letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, calling on him to cease a “ruthless union-busting campaign.”

Sanders’ laundry list of priorities likely sounds familiar to those who have followed his political career over the course of more than four decades. Asked how he feels now occupying a chairmanship which arguably holds the most influence over these issues, he answered succinctly.

“The short answer is, it feels very, very good. I’m very excited,” Sanders said. “We have put together an excellent staff. They are working 24/7 right now and we look forward to a very productive two years.”

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