Bernie Sanders On The IRA, Joe Manchin And Upcoming Elections : The NPR Politics Podcast This episode is available to everyone, though on some platforms there may be a short delay in availability between the version for subscribers (which is sponsor-free) and non-subscribers (which includes sponsor interruptions). Thank you for your patience!

In an interview with NPR, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he stood by his characterization earlier this summer that his colleague Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sabotaged President Biden's agenda. "I don't think it's debatable," he said, adding that that he felt Manchin had "his own agenda" when negotiating with the administration over policy goals. Sanders told NPR he would support a reelection bid from President Biden, and spoke about his hopes for getting more progressives elected to Congress in November's midterms.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Bernie Sanders On The IRA, Joe Manchin And Upcoming Elections

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Tamara Keith from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And I am so excited because we are getting ready to go back out on the road. And Houston - you're up first. Join Susan Davis, Asma Khalid, Ashley Lopez, Domenico Montanaro and me at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including for students, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.

JACOB: Hi. This is Jacob (ph)...

OLIVIA: And Olivia (ph).

JACOB: ...In Durham, N.C., where we are enjoying one last night together before I leave for law school at Northwestern University in Chicago.

OLIVIA: And I start law school here in Durham at Duke University.

JACOB: This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

3:33 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, August 15.

OLIVIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but we'll still be holding lots of dates and study sessions over FaceTime.

ASMA KHALID & MARA LIASSON: Aw.

JACOB & OLIVIA: OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Oh, that's very sweet.

KHALID: It is...

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Nice.

KHALID: ...And so sweet that they chose to spend one of their final nights with us, guys.

SNELL: Yeah.

LIASSON: What nerds.

SNELL: (Laughter).

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And, Mara, I just want to say, welcome back, because it feels like it's been a minute since you've been on the podcast.

LIASSON: It's been a minute. And just like those two kids are off to different law schools, I am on the campus of Cornell University, dropping my daughter off for her senior year, and all that clumping and bumping you hear behind me is her and her roommates moving into their very dilapidated, but cozy, house.

KHALID: Oh, well, thank you for taking the time, nonetheless, to spend some time with us on the POLITICS POD.

LIASSON: Happy to be here.

KHALID: Despite being rivals in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden seem to be now governing as allies. The left-wing senator from Vermont has been a staunch defender of the far more moderate president from Delaware. Sanders has helped get Biden's agenda through Congress, and perhaps nowhere was that more on display than just this past week with the big climate and health care bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act. And lucky for all of us, Kelsey just interviewed Senator Sanders late last week. And, Kelsey, I have lots of questions for you, but let's start with getting your sense of how Sanders felt about this bill because, you know, it was, no doubt, a scaled-back version of what he himself initially wanted.

SNELL: Yeah. I mean, he put out a statement after voting for it, basically saying that he voted for it in spite of the bill - he was voting for it even though it was missing a lot of the things that he wanted. He says that it's really important in light of all of that for Democrats to start following through on some of the promises they made to voters in 2020.

BERNIE SANDERS: I am very, very worried that ordinary Americans, by the millions, are giving up on democracy, giving up on whether or not their government cares about them and can address their needs.

SNELL: So I should say, before we get too far into this, that he was talking to me from Vermont. And so he - his line was a little bit unstable at times, but...

(CROSSTALK)

SNELL: (Laughter) We had a pretty wide-ranging conversation. And, you know, one of the things I thought that was interesting there is, Mara, he's talking about something that you and I have talked about quite a bit, which is this idea that people are just getting disillusioned by the process because they don't see their votes, their needs, their wants reflected in what Congress is doing.

LIASSON: Right. And one of the Democrats' core beliefs is if they did deliver on things people wanted - and, of course, this bill is filled with things that are very popular with people - that the voters would reward them...

SNELL: Right.

LIASSON: ...And would feel better about their lives and would understand the Democrats gave these things to them and all the Republicans voted against it. So that remains to be seen if that theory of the case is actually correct.

KHALID: Kelsey, I also want to ask you about some of the personalities involved in getting this bill to the finish line because it does seem that one of the key aspects of negotiating the Inflation Reduction Act was ensuring the Democrats in Congress could count on the support from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. And I know that Sanders and Manchin have had their differences over the years, but here, when we're looking at this bill, I mean, at the end it seems that they all did come to some sort of agreement.

SNELL: Right. So they came to enough agreement that they all voted for the bill. All of the Democrats in the Senate voted for the bill. But, you know, I wondered the same thing. I wondered if he felt like Manchin eventually got on board. Did he give him any credit for it? And this is what I asked him.

In July, you said Manchin had sabotaged President Biden's agenda. Now, granted, that was before the full Inflation Reduction Act was announced. I wonder if you still believe that he sabotaged the party?

SANDERS: I don't think it's debatable. The president and Build Back Better brought forth an agenda, which was very significantly supported the needs of working families. We could not get that passed because two corporate Democrats objected. So do I think that as sabotaging the president's agenda? Of course it is.

SNELL: Do you talk to Senator Manchin or Senator Sinema?

SANDERS: I do upon occasion. But I have a lot...

SNELL: Is it productive?

SANDERS: You know, I thought, after a while, everybody in the world had talked to Senator Manchin and it did not do much good. He had his own agenda.

SNELL: Now, what's interesting to me about this is not only is he saying that he, you know, thinks that Manchin basically undermined all of the Democrats, but he's basically writing off the need to talk to Manchin about this kind of policymaking in general. That doesn't bode well for a situation where Democrats still anticipate having, even if they are able to keep the Senate, a fairly narrow majority.

LIASSON: Well, you know, what's interesting about that is you could say that the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was a remarkable act of unity, of Democrats coming together, of Biden, Manchin, Sanders all pulling on the same oar. But Bernie Sanders sounds kind of bitter there.

SNELL: Yeah.

LIASSON: I actually think there was more unity of - look, Bernie Sanders originally wanted a $6 trillion bill.

SNELL: Right, yeah. When they did $3.5 trillion as, like, their opening bid, that was, like, a stepping back for him.

LIASSON: So he sounds like a grumpy progressive.

SNELL: (Laughter).

LIASSON: What the Democrats actually did is they came together on an agenda that they all agreed with, and it had to be whittled down to meet Manchin's specifications. But the stuff that's in there are things that the most conservative Democrat and the most progressive Democrats support - the government negotiating drug prices, extension of Obamacare subsidies, the most money ever to combat climate change, 15% minimum corporate tax, deficit reduction. You know, that is what happens when a coalition that is as broad and diverse as the Democratic Party comes together.

SNELL: Well, I will say that, you know, Sanders followed up on this kind of thought by saying that the things that he wants to do - I'm talking about, you know, child care and paid family and medical leave and other things that he had been pushing for - he says he believes that those are things that are supported by - to quote his statistics - 70- to 80% of the American people. So to some degree, while, you know, what they got passed may be reflective of where Democrats can get in the Senate right now and the agreement they can find, Sanders still thinks that they're not meeting the fullness of the needs in the center of the party.

LIASSON: Certainly not, and I think most progressives would agree with him. However, when you operate in a minoritarian institution like the Senate, you have to have really big majorities in order to get those things done that progressives want. They don't have a majority at all. They have a 50/50 Senate. This is what they could get through. Joe Biden doesn't want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. So they passed something that's pretty popular. And quite frankly, it came after they - after passing a whole bunch of other things that was really popular. But when you raise expectations as high as the Democrats do - and I think they took a big risk doing it and got punished for it...

KHALID: You're talking about during the campaign.

LIASSON: ...This is where you end up. Yes - during the campaign. You end up with Bernie Sanders focusing on what wasn't in the bill as opposed to other Democrats who want to focus on what is in the bill.

KHALID: So I have a question for you, though, Mara. I mean, does the calculus change if the makeup of the Senate changes, right? And I guess I'm thinking of someone that I know you and I have talked about before, someone like John Fetterman, who is kind of running on an economic populist message platform for a Senate seat there in Pennsylvania. If someone like him wins, I mean, are - does that have the potential to really change the makeup or the momentum of where Democrats are or where the center of the Democratic Party is in the Senate?

LIASSON: Well, if he wins and the Democrats get a majority and a real majority, like 51-49, yes, it changes everything because then Joe Manchin is not the center of the universe. If he wins and they have enough losses elsewhere that they come back with a 50/50 Senate...

KHALID: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...We're kind of in the same place we are now. But you mentioned something really important. John Fetterman is running on an economic populist agenda. Those are the issues that unite Democrats. The things that divide Democrats are defund the police, abolish ICE, social issues. However, there are a bunch of social issues that actually unite the Democrats because they're so popular with the country, like gun safety, you know, universal background checks, even Roe as the middle ground on abortion, that's also really popular.

So there are some cultural issues that work for Democrats. I think where the Democrats have come to is that the kinds of cultural issues that progressives were focusing on a while ago, like defund the police or abolish ICE, are probably a bad idea. They're not popular with swing voters. So they should focus on economic issues the way John Fetterman is.

KHALID: All right. Let's take a break. And when we're back, we'll have more of Kelsey's conversation with Bernie Sanders.

And we're back. And, Kelsey, we were speaking earlier about how the makeup of the Senate could potentially change. But, you know, a lot of that depends on what Democrats actually are able to pull off in the midterms. I'm curious if Senator Sanders had a strategy or a vision for his own party's prospects in these upcoming November elections.

SNELL: Well, I did ask him about, you know, if he thinks that people are at risk of becoming disillusioned and if he worries about, you know, the possibility of overpromising. What should Democrats actually be saying to voters right now? And this is what he said.

SANDERS: The answer is you've got to be honest with the American people and say, look. We understand that you can't afford housing. You can't afford health care. You can't afford child care. You don't have paid family and medical leave. And here is the reason why. Be honest about it. Unfortunately, you got two corporate Democrats out of the 50 that we have who are also not prepared to stand up for working families. That means we cannot pass the legislation that we need, that the American people want. And that is why we have got to start electing three or four more progressives to the U.S. Senate so that we can go forward in a way that meets the needs of the American people.

SNELL: So...

LIASSON: Wow.

SNELL: Yeah.

LIASSON: That is the most jaw-dropping, off-message statement I can imagine. When the whole Democratic Party wants to say, the reason that we can't give you more is because Republicans won't vote for this, Bernie Sanders is saying, we should be running against two Democrats from West Virginia and Arizona. That's kind of shocking.

SNELL: You know, I think it's interesting, though, because I have heard a little bit of a mixture of those responses from, you know, Democrats privately but not in this kind of a conversation.

LIASSON: He's really off-message. He's not running against fellow Democrats. He's not in a primary. We are now entering the general election season, where they're trying to get more seats, which means defeating Republicans, not defeating Sinema and Manchin.

KHALID: Just to be clear, is he saying to defeat those two senators, in his words, who he described as corporate Democrats? Or is he saying we need more so we can ignore these two?

LIASSON: No. He just said we can't deliver because we have two corporate Democrats. He's not saying we can't deliver because the special-interest-backed Republicans won't cooperate with us. He's laying the blame on his own party.

SNELL: He does have some blame for Republicans at other parts of our conversation. But, Asma, I do think that is part of what he's saying here - is, like - is essentially that progressives need more. They need - he can't defend progressive politics as a one-man fight in a 50-50 Senate. But, again, I also think that promising three or four more progressive Democrats in the Senate is a big promise. It's a big expectation for an election where I don't see three or four people who might necessarily meet that description.

LIASSON: Yes, needing more Democrats is the message of the midterms. But saying the reason we can't deliver more for you is because two of our Democrats are corporatists is not the message that the White House and the DCCC and the DSCC wants. I can assure you.

KHALID: Kelsey, I want to pivot a little bit and actually ask you about a question that you posed to Bernie Sanders. Given all this chatter we've begun to hear, even from Joe Biden's fellow Democrats, about whether or not he should run for re-election in 2024, I'm curious what Senator Sanders told you.

SNELL: Well, he gave me a really strong defense of Joe Biden.

My last question - is President Biden the right person to be leading the party in this moment? Should he be running for reelection, and should he be representing Democrats?

SANDERS: Well, President Biden made it clear he wants to be the most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And I think he was very strongly supportive of a Build Back Better plan that was comprehensive. So, yes, I think President Biden made it clear that he wants us to think big.

SNELL: So he should run again.

SANDERS: What I have said is that if he runs again, I will be supporting him. But the issue is what we're going to do right now. And is President Biden prepared to support bold and progressive legislation? Absolutely, he is.

LIASSON: Wow - ringing endorsement there.

KHALID: That's quite an affirmation. Yeah.

LIASSON: For a progressive to a centrist, that tells you that the Democratic Party is maybe not so riven as we thought.

SNELL: Right. And I thought it was very interesting that Sanders is essentially saying he thinks Biden wants to be a progressive president and that he wants to, you know, be passing the types of policies that Sanders himself is supporting here.

KHALID: All right. Well, a lot to keep an eye on, but that is a wrap for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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