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Progressive Democrats Aim For A Bigger Infrastructure Package

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden pushed hard for bipartisan support of his massive infrastructure bill to fix roads, bridges and transportation. But that support is fragile, and the bill's fate depends on a second broader infrastructure spending bill that the more progressive wing of the party doesn't even agree on yet with more moderates. For one view on this, we're joined by independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Senator, welcome back to the program.

BERNIE SANDERS: Good. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: In a tweet on Sunday, you made it clear your support of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is now in question. Why?

SANDERS: Because not so much of what the bipartisan bill has. It is what it doesn't have. It would be absolutely irresponsible beyond belief if we did not address the existential crisis of climate change. And there's virtually no money in the bipartisan bill for climate change. Furthermore, at a time when half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck and tens of millions of people are working for starvation wages, the time, in my view, is long overdue for government to start paying attention to the needs of workers and not just wealthy campaign contributors.

And that means that, among other things, we have to understand that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major nation on Earth. And we've got to deal with that by finally dealing with a dysfunctional childcare system. We need to make the child tax credit permanent. We need to deal with the reality we're the only major country on Earth not to guarantee paid family and medical leave. We need to lower the cost of prescription drugs. We need to expand Medicare to cover dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses. And we have to make higher education affordable and deal with housing, as well.

In other words, there are a series of crises, Rachel, that have been ignored for decades. And the result of that, I think, is that a lot of people in this country are kind of alienated from their own government. They don't believe that the government of the United States is concerned about their needs and just worries about the needs of the wealthy. I think it's time we turned that around.

MARTIN: Can I ask about process, though, which is important here? I hear you saying you're not going to support this bill for bridges, roads, other things considered traditional infrastructure unless you've got that funding for climate change and the other priorities you just outlined. And you would get this by way of something called reconciliation, which would push it through with just Democratic votes and avoid a potential GOP filibuster. But do you have reason to believe that's not going to happen, that reconciliation for the second bill won't happen. Isn't that what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is putting together now?

SANDERS: Well, we are working on it, and I believe that, absolutely, it is going to happen. I think every member of the Democratic caucus understands that it is absurd that in America today, you have the wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations in a given year paying zero in federal income tax. So I think there is a widespread understanding that we have to act. We will act. Where there are - you know, where there is clearly disagreement, you've got 50 members each with their own priorities. And we're going to have to work that out. But at the end of the day, I think what we are going to see, Rachel, is the most consequential piece of legislation to improve the lives of working people that we have seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

MARTIN: Republican Senator Mike Braun has said if Democrats push this spending bill this way through reconciliation, he and others may drop their support for the initial infrastructure bill. Is pushing for the broader climate change, social services bill this way in this moment worth potentially blowing up a key part of President Biden's agenda?

SANDERS: All of the infrastructure money that is in the bipartisan bill is already included in the legislation that I'm helping to write, so we can do all of that without Republican support. But the bottom line here is at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when half of our people living paycheck to paycheck, when you have almost 600,000 Americans sleeping out on the streets of America, it is high time for the Congress to start standing up for working families and not just the 1%.

MARTIN: But I guess I'm trying to understand, do you think that's not going to happen? It sounds like that you don't need to threaten that you won't support the bipartisan bill because reconciliation is going to happen for this larger social spending.

SANDERS: Well, we just want to make sure that the legislation that the American people want, which is transformative, will happen. The danger here is that our - what our Republican colleagues want is to pass a narrower bipartisan bill and not allow us to do the broad bill that has to be done. And my own view is we must do that legislation.

MARTIN: Even if it requires abandoning any bipartisan support for that initial bill.

SANDERS: I think what the American people want is to get the job done. They want to create millions of good-paying jobs. They want to deal with the crisis of climate change. They want to make sure that our elderly people can chew their food because they can afford dentures. What the American people want is action now to protect them. If we can do it, part of it in a bipartisan way, that's great. If we can't, then we'll do it alone.

MARTIN: You have nodded to the fact that there's a disagreement among Democrats about how much to pay, how much to invest in the second spending bill. Moderate Joe Manchin, has floated $2 trillion. You are more comfortable with a number around $6 trillion, which is a pretty big gap. Understanding that climate change is very important to you. What are your other non-negotiable here?

SANDERS: Climate change is unimportant to me. It's important to this planet. It's important to our children and future generations. If we do not act boldly to try to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, the planet we're going to be leaving our kids in future generations will be increasingly unhealthy. It has to be dealt with. And if we are going to restore faith on the part of the American people in their government, we have got to act with their concerns. Now, you're right. There are differences of opinion within the Democratic caucus as to how much we should be spending. And literally as we speak and in the coming week, that is what we're going to be working on.

MARTIN: We'll check back with you on that at another time, I hope. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, we appreciate your time.

SANDERS: Thank you very much. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.