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Sanders Returns to His Outspoken House Ways

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who proudly served as agitator-in-chief during his years in the House, seems ready to reprise that role after just two years in the Senate.

Just last week, the self-described Democratic Socialist earned debate time and a potential vote on an unlikely amendment calling for a single-payer health care system. The same day, Sanders launched an effort to stop Ben Bernanke from being approved to a second term as head of the Federal Reserve.

“For me personally, for many years when I was in the House I was in the minority. Now I’m an Independent who caucuses with the majority party, so by definition I have more influence,— Sanders, elected to the Senate in 2006, said in an interview.

“So if your question is, ‘Can you do things in the United States Senate you couldn’t do in the House?’ Absolutely,— he added.

As is the case with most freshman Senators, Sanders spent his first two years in the Senate working quietly behind the scenes. But in recent months, he seems to have returned to his outspoken roots, waging fights on several fronts. In many ways, he has followed a path forged by his ideological polar opposite, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an equally aggressive Member whose tactics regularly cause heartburn among colleagues.

“We’d be the best of friends if we thought similarly,— said Coburn, whose tenure in the House overlapped with Sanders’. “We just happen to be 180 degrees apart.—

Ironically, it was Coburn who helped shut down Sanders’ unlikely single-payer amendment last week by calling for its 400 pages to be read on the floor, a process that could have taken eight to 12 hours. What was a largely symbolic effort quickly turned into a potentially disastrous hurdle for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to overcome as he races to pass health care before Christmas.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sanders eventually withdrew his amendment.

“I’m happy the leader allowed me to offer the amendment, and I’m sorry the minority used me to waste an enormous amount of time,— Sanders said of the exchange.

While Sanders has enjoyed small victories of late, that hasn’t always been the case. Sanders tried to expand the reach of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to include Senators shortly after arriving in the chamber in 2007, but he did not find any interest even among his most liberal colleagues. Sanders largely kept his head down after that effort, but he has re-emerged in the midst of one of the Senate’s most eventful periods. He threatened to vote against the health care bill if it did not include a robust public option, the preference among liberals, and brought the issue up repeatedly to colleagues before delivering an impassioned speech for his single-payer amendment last week.

“He speaks very strongly in caucus,— Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said. “There’s nothing tactical about it. We’re near the end and people are listening,— Rockefeller added of Sanders’ more recent outbursts.

Sanders said he’s still undecided on how to vote on the Senate health care reform package. But even if he does end up supporting the final product, Sanders vowed to continue the fight for a single-payer system. In the more immediate term, Sanders is intent on derailing Bernanke’s confirmation to a second term. Sanders has a hold on the nomination, a procedural move shared by GOP Sens. Jim Bunning (Ky.), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and David Vitter (La.). Sanders notes the odd alliance with some of the Senate’s most conservative Members.

“Sometimes for different reasons you have people from the left and people on the right come together, which makes interesting bedfellows,— he said.

With Bernanke receiving a 16-7 vote of approval in the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee last week, Sanders suggests he has a “good shot— at rallying enough colleagues to vote against the nomination on the floor.

“I do not dislike him, nothing personal,— said Sanders, who believes Bernanke “failed— in his first term.

Defeating Bernanke’s confirmation would be problematic for the Obama administration, Sanders acknowledged, but he believes he’s just doing his job.

“It’s very easy to forget about it and think about what the fine institution the Senate is,— Sanders said. “Well, I’m here to represent people. If I’m a bit of an agitator and trying to push through ideas that people aren’t comfortable with, well then, I’m an agitator.—

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