Sen. Bernie Sanders

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Described by the NYT as a master of retail politics, the Vermont senator previews the congressional agenda following the summer recess.

Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders is the first person elected to the Senate to identify as a socialist, though he caucuses with the Democrats. He previously served 16 years in the House and is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history. He also served four terms as mayor of Burlington, VT and lectured at Harvard's JFK School of Government and Hamilton College in upstate New York. Sanders' legislative interests include a focus on America's shrinking middle class and widening income gap, and, in the current (113th) Congress, he serves on five standing committees, including Budget and Veterans' Affairs, which he chairs.


Tavis: Congress reconvened today with a vote on whether or not to authorize military action against Syria on the top of the agenda, but it’s not the only crisis Congress needs to grapple with.

There are serious issues, of course, here at home – unemployment, underemployment, immigration reform, the looming debt ceiling, among others. Joining us now from Washington, our friend Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont. Senator Sanders, good to have you on this program once again, sir.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start with the news of the day on Syria. News is breaking so fast today I don’t know where this puts us. But let me start with your news first. You tell me what Harry Reid said today about this pending vote, and then we’ll talk about what Kerry and apparently the Washington has said about Assad today.

Sanders: Well, as I understand it, Majority Leader Reid was going to place a cloture vote, introduce a cloture vote tonight. What he has just announced is that he will not do that. He wants the president to be able to meet with members of the Senate tomorrow, as well as speak to the nation.

So there’s a delay in that, and obviously there are some other very important news, and I think some good news in terms of Russia leaning on Assad and the possibility that they will now make available to the international community their chemical weapons.

Tavis: So to the point you’ve just made now, it is the case that Secretary of State John Kerry first stated during a press conference that Syria can avoid an attack by putting chemical weapons under international control.

Now we are told, Senator Sanders, that the Syrian foreign minister will of course explore that options. Russia, as you mentioned a moment ago, apparently used some diplomatic back channels to put this in motion.

So the White House, as I’m told now, is confirming that the president stands behind that Secretary Kerry made, that if, in fact, once again, they put these chemical weapons under international control, the military strike, whatever that might be, assuming that he were to get support from Congress, is on hold for the moment.

News agencies initially called this statement by Secretary Kerry a gaffe. I didn’t believe it was a gaffe when I first heard it. I thought it was pretty calculated. What’s your sense of this statement by Secretary Kerry, now confirmed by the White House?

Sanders: Well, sense is that it is really good news. The devil is always in the details, Tavis.

But finally, Russia is jumping in in a constructive way, and they have, obviously, a lot of influence on Syria. If they can force Syria to A, for the first time, as I understand it, acknowledge that they have chemical weapons, something I don’t think they’ve done before, and second of all allow the international community to secure those chemical weapons, that would be a huge step forward.

Tavis: You’re in Washington. You’ve been there a long time, so you know how this news cycle business works. There’ll be a lot of spin in the coming hours and days about what has happened here.

Never mind whatever back channels Russia might have used; there will be spin that this is just another example of the president trying to back down his comment about that red line, back down his going to Congress for the vote that he needs.

Now, if you turn over the weapons, we won’t strike you. Is this the president backing down his comment?

Sanders: Oh, God. Tavis, it’s just hard for me to imagine anybody making that statement. That has been the goal all along. Look, what I will tell you this evening is I have very, very strong reservations about the United States of America getting involved in a bloody and complicated civil war in Syria.

About 95 percent of the emails and phone calls my office is getting also, people also have serious concerns. But to say that the president is backtracking if, in fact, the end result will be that Syria allows its chemical weapons to be secured by the international community, that is a huge victory. That is not a backing down. People should be very –

Tavis: But respectfully, Senator, there are two issues here. One is what happens going forward? Which is that if you are willing to put your chemical weapons under international control, that’s a beautiful thing, I agree with you, and we would obviously welcome that.

But there’s a second issue, and the second issue is really the first issue that the president said he wanted to address, and that was, to use his word, to punish Syria for having already used these weapons and killing their own people.

So now are we saying that that issue is no longer important, that punishing Assad is no longer a priority?

Sanders: Well as somebody who is not enthusiastic about getting involved in a war at all for all kinds of reasons –

Tavis: Right.

Sanders: – I think it will be seen by the entire global community as a wonderful victory. That we will have taken weapons of mass destruction – if, in fact, we can do it. It’s harder than it looks.

Tavis: Right.

Sanders: But if you can get chemical weapons out of Syria without the United States getting involved in a bloody war, I can’t imagine too many people thinking that’s not a very positive step.

Tavis: All right. There’ll be enough talk about Syria in the coming days, and I’m sure every other network is covering this story ad nauseam, so let me move on to what’s not being talked about.

Put another way, what Congress is not getting around to doing because this Syria crisis is foreclosing on the rest of the agenda. At the top of this conversation I mentioned some of those issues, so let’s talk about what Congress ought to be working on.

Sanders: Well, Tavis, in the real world here in Washington, and in real life, there is no one issue separated from another issue. One of the many reasons that I have deep concerns about American involvement in a Syrian civil war is that it will push to the side the very, very serious problems facing the middle class and working families of this country.

Right now, the United States Congress gets perhaps a 10 percent favorability rating because people are furious. The middle class is collapsing. Real unemployment is close to 14 percent, youth unemployment over 18 percent, youth unemployment in the African American community close to 40 percent, the gap between the very rich and everybody else growing wider.

We have enormous problems, and people are saying deal with these issues. Protect the middle class. Address the issue of poverty. Do something about global warming. Do something about Citizens United and the ability of big money to buy elections.

If we get involved in Syria, it is much less likely that we will address those issues. So to my mind, on every poll that I have seen, and when I talk to people in the state, you know what they say?

We have got to create millions of jobs in this country. Kids who are graduating high school, kids who are graduating college having a very, very difficult time getting employment.

If you don’t get a job for the first two or three years when you’re out of high school, or you get a job that doesn’t match your qualifications with a college degree, that impacts your entire life.

So what the American people are saying, let’s create jobs, let’s deal with the fact that most of the new jobs being created are part-time jobs, many of them are low-wage jobs. At a time when productivity is increasing, why isn’t it that we are creating good-paying jobs in America? Let’s tackle that issue.

Tavis: The unemployment numbers that came out Friday were dismal once again, as you saw, and all the rest of us, for that matter, saw. Nothing to be happy about with regard to these numbers, again, on Friday.

Let me ask you point-blank whether or not you think this president, with Syria still on the top of the docket and other issues, whether or not the president still has time left before he becomes a lame duck to really do something about the issue of jobs in America, and unemployment and underemployment.

Sanders: The answer is theoretically, absolutely. In practical terms, will he? I have my doubts.

Look, here’s the issue, in fairness to the president. You have, in my view, a Democratic Party which is pretty weak, which is not being aggressive and standing up for working families. But you have a Republican Party which is far, far worse.

Which wants to, in many ways, cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, et cetera, et cetera. What the president has to do, to me, from a political perspective, is not very complicated.

He has got to stand with the American people, 70, 80 percent of them who want us to work on creating jobs. He has got to raise the minimum wage and fight for that. We’ve got to address the issue of global warming.

Put the Republicans on the defensive. Stop talking about this world of post-partisan politics which the Republicans don’t believe for one second. What really pains me, Tavis, is the Republican right wing ideology is not supported by more than 15, 20 percent of the American people.

The American people do not want more tax breaks for billionaires and cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They want jobs, they want to raise the minimum wage, they want to make college affordable. They want to improve our healthcare system.

But what the president has got to do, and he hasn’t, is to rally the American people, expose the Republican agenda, and beat them. That’s what it’s about. Defeat them. Because so long as right wing extremists control the House of Representatives, I worry very, very much about the future of this country.

Tavis: Let me throw another issue right quick into the mix that I referenced at the top of this conversation. That would be, Senator Sanders, the issue of immigration reform.

My read on this, and you’re the expert here; I’m just asking the questions. But my read on this says the following: If you don’t get immigration reform passed this year, it doesn’t happen in the Obama era.

Here’s how I see it, at least. You tell me where I’m wrong. The issue of Syria, the looming debt ceiling, again, the jobs issue that you’ve just talked about are serious issues. I don’t know how, with all that stuff already on the plate, you even get to immigration reform this year.

If you don’t get to it this year, next year you’ve got midterm elections. Too many Republicans next year have too much at stake to come across the aisle to agree on immigration reform, so that for all the hype about immigration reform, as I’ve said a thousand times on this program, I just didn’t see if the president didn’t make it a greater priority, how it got done. Do you see it differently? If so, tell me why.

Sanders: I think you make a fair argument, Tavis. I think – and let me tell you this: I voted for immigration reform. But there’s a lot in that bill that I worry about and as a result of that legislation you’re going to see many, many, many, hundreds of thousands of entry-level workers from around the world coming into the United States.

I worry about what that means for low-income kids in this country being able to get entry-level jobs. I think in terms of some high-tech jobs, I think a lot of the spin that they’re giving you is gee, nobody in America can work a computer.

We need all of these people coming from abroad. I don’t believe that either. But I think weighing the pros and the cons and the fact that I’ve got a $1.5 billion amendment into the bill to provide 400,000 jobs for kids, I ended up voting for it.

But I think your point is that if we do not get that passed very soon.

And again, this is where the Syria business worries me very much. If we don’t get it passed now, and then we get into the election season, I agree with you. I suspect that we will not get it passed in the Obama term, and I think that’s very unfortunate.

Tavis: I know you’ve got to run. There are serious issues in Washington looming, starting with Syria, that need your attention much more than I should take up your time longer in this conversation. But I thank you as always for your insight, Senator Sanders.

Sanders: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, on this very busy news day.

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Last modified: September 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm