An Emboldened Bernie Sanders Returns To The U.S. Senate

Jul 1, 2016

Bernie Sanders has yet to suspend his presidential campaign, but he’s now getting back into the swing of things representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate. But he’s still focusing more on the national issues that fueled his popular rise than he seems to be on local issues.

It’s hard to go from the presidential campaign trail back to the Senate. On the trail, one is the center of attention – filling stadiums with cheering fans and raising millions of dollars by clicking “send” on an email blast.

But in the Senate, a politician is just one out of 100 senators. That transition is hard, and each senator who has lost a White House bid returns to work at their own pace.

Before starting his losing bid, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would always stop for interviews with reporters. Now, he says, “Just call our press office – call our press office.”

But Sanders made it further in the process than Cruz, and while both built huge movements, Sanders actually filled stadiums, while Cruz only filled coffee shops.

Before Sanders became a household name, he would be seen walking around Capitol Hill carrying his own dry cleaning and briefcase. Now he’s still surrounded by a large Secret Service detail, which makes it hard for reporters to get to him.

But after taking to the Senate floor to try to derail a plan to allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debt, he did entertain some questions in the Capitol’s hallways.

Each senator who has lost a White House bid returns to work at their own pace, and the transition is hard.

“To say that we are going to allow four Republicans to run your country, to run your territory for the indefinite future, is not something the United States of America should be doing," he said.

When a reporter asked a question about the Democratic platform, Sanders didn’t answer.

Since coming back to D.C., Sanders has skipped some hearings on the Veterans Affairs committee on which he serves. He also flew up to New York to endorse House candidate Eric Kingson. 

“We’re running all over this country, we’re going to be running all over this country to elect excellent members of Congress like Eric, we’re going to be working hard to elect people to the school boards, to the city councils, to mayors’ seats, to the state legislature,” he said.

Kingson lost his Democratic primary by 16 points to the party establishment-backed candidate. Sanders also lost his effort to stop the Puerto Rico package.

Sanders is used to being a minority in the minority in the Senate, but he seems to be emboldened these days.

As a former Independent until his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders was used to being a minority in the minority in the Senate, but he seems to be emboldened these days.

While he’s in line to become the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, he’s also trying to become the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – which has control over the big health and labor issues Sanders championed on the campaign trail. The problem is Washington Sen. Patty Murray is currently in line for that post. And Democrats, like Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, are trying to avoid weighing in on the inter-party fight.

“We don't know where Senator Murray will be as well. I mean, she has a number of leadership opportunities,” Stabenow says. “And so I think we're a long way from knowing what would happen … in a challenge, but, you know, we certainly need the leadership qualities and the leadership of Senator Murray, we need the leadership of Senator Sanders.”

Hanging over Sanders’ return is the fact he’s still holding out his endorsement of Hillary Clinton, merely saying he’ll vote for her over Trump. He’s also still using his perch to try to make the party’s platform more progressive. Democrats like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen say they have to take Sanders at his word. 

“He’s indicated that he’s looking at the future and at the convention and I’m – my assumption is that he’s going to everything he can to make sure that Donald Trump is not the next president.”

Hanging over Sanders' return is the fact he's still holding out his endorsement of Hillary Clinton. He’s also still using his perch to try to make the party's platform more progressive.

Shaheen represents New Hampshire. As for whether she’s discussed any regional issues with Sanders since his return?

“Um, I haven’t really … I haven’t had a chance to see him really very much,” she says.

While most Democrats are giving Sanders space, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is vocal in urging Sanders to end his campaign already.

“Well, I think, as I’ve said consistently, I love Bernie and Bernie’s a good senator, but it’s time to fold up his presidential [campaign] and unify,” Nelson says.

The Democratic Convention in Philadelphia is just a few weeks away, and the party is hoping Sanders will work to bring his voters into Clinton’s fold. But for now, he doesn’t seem to be eager to please the establishment in his own party. 

Matt Laslo is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court since 2006.