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Sen. Bernie Sanders is now the chair of a key Congressional committee. Here are his priorities

A photo of Bernie Sanders in a suit and tie, wearing a face mask and walking through reporters in the basement of Congress.
Patrick Semansky
Associated Press
Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders was named the new chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pension committee.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was named as the new chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions last week. It's a position that Sanders requested, because it deals with many of the issues he's worked on during his long political career.

Vermont Public senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel had a chance to speak with Sanders about his priorities for the new session. He joined Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to share what he learned.

Mitch Wertlieb: How did this all come about? How was Sen. Sanders able to secure this leadership position on this important committee?

Bob Kinzel: Mitch, this is a great example of where seniority makes a big difference in the Senate. We've had a lot of focus in recent months about the long career of Sen. Patrick Leahy and his 48 years in the Senate. Bernie Sanders was first elected to the Senate in 2006. And of the 100 senators in that chamber right now, Sanders ranks 20th in overall seniority. So he's moving up.

Watch a documentary about Patrick Leahy's long Congressional career here.

When Sen. Leahy retired, that opened up the leadership of the Appropriations committee. Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who had previously chaired the Health committee, became the new chair of Appropriations. So that created a vacancy. And Sen. Sanders requested that top post, and he got it.

So what does Bernie Sanders see then as some of his top priorities? And also, how does he intend to win support for them in a Senate where the Democrats have the razor-slim majority that they have, and with a House that's now controlled by the Republicans?

Mitch, that is a major challenge. Sanders told me he's well aware of the political situation in Congress, and the committee could spend a lot of time on issues that have absolutely no chance of passing. Or the panel could take a more pragmatic approach, and that's what he says he wants to do.

For instance, he wants to expand access to primary care in this country. And as part of that goal, he's been a longtime supporter of what are known as federally qualified health centers. There are now 12 centers in Vermont with dozens of satellite offices in every county that provide essential primary care services to about a third of all Vermonters, and Sanders wants to expand these centers.

“I'm an advocate of Medicare For All. We don't have the votes in the Senate to pass it right now. But what I do hope that we can move forward, maybe in a bipartisan way, is expanding primary health care," Sanders said. "In Vermont, we've had good luck with community health centers, about a third of the people in Vermont get their health care through community health centers, dental care, mental health counseling, low cost prescription drugs, so that everybody in America, in the richest country on Earth can get to a doctor when they need.”

You might remember that about a decade ago, during the debate over Obamacare, Sanders wasn't all that enthusiastic about the Obama plan. But he agreed to support it if several billion dollars were allocated to these community health centers across the country. And that's exactly what happened. And that really got the health centers off the ground and into many communities.

Well, Bob, are there some other issues where Sen. Sanders thinks he can maybe develop some bipartisan support?

Definitely, Sanders thinks the escalating cost of many prescription drugs is an issue that cuts across party lines.

“I saw a poll recently that just talked to Republicans — only Republicans. The top issue of concern to Republicans was the high cost of prescription drugs," Sanders said. "Well, that's true of Democrats, that’s true of independents as well.”

“Government put $1.7 billion into Moderna to help them with clinical trials. Guaranteed them billions of dollars in sales. And the thank you that we get from Moderna for doing all of that, is that when the government's stockpile of vaccines expires, they're going to quadruple the price. Are we going to go after them? You bet we are.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sanders also thinks he can gain bipartisan support for an effort to get two major pharmaceutical companies — Moderna and Pfizer — to roll back their plans to increase the price of a COVID vaccine from roughly $25-a-shot to over $100.

“Government put $1.7 billion into Moderna to help them with clinical trials. Guaranteed them billions of dollars in sales," Sanders said. "And the thank you that we get from Moderna for doing all of that, is that when the government's stockpile of vaccines expires, they're going to quadruple the price. Are we going to go after them? You bet we are.”

So Mitch, it'll be very interesting to see if Sanders can develop a bipartisan support for this initiative. And it'll be an interesting test of his overall approach with this committee.

And labor issues also come under the jurisdiction of the committee that he's now on. What are some of Sen. Sanders priorities in that area?

Mitch, there is one big one, and that's legislation to increase the federal minimum wage.

“But you got a national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. You got millions of people working for $10, $12 bucks an hour. You can't live on that," Sanders said. "So I want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. And we'll see where we go with that.”

Sanders says he also sees the affordability and the accessibility to high quality child care as a key issue to help people advance in the labor market. And he wants the committee to take a very close look at that.

You know, Bob, as I hear you discuss many of the Sanders priorities for this committee, it does seem like he’s now in a key position to influence the outcome of a number of these issues that he's been working on, really for more than 40 years now. Is this a big window for Sen. Sanders to get some of these things done?

Yes, Mitch, it definitely does. Because Sanders has been talking about many of these issues for his entire political career — as mayor of Burlington, as a member of the U.S. House, and now in the U.S. Senate — I asked him if he had thought about this. And here's what he said:

“That's exactly true," Sanders said. "And those, you know, that's why I'm pretty excited about taking over as chair of the committee. And what you find is that for working people, in Vermont, and all over this country, I mean, we're facing a whole lot of crises.”

Sanders says it’s likely the committee will initially look at the rising cost of prescription drugs to see if a bipartisan approach can be developed in the coming weeks.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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