Interview with Senator Bernie Sanders

Interview with Senator Bernie Sanders

By The Situation Room - December 7, 2010

BLITZER: President Obama clearly under fire from some members of his own party over the deal he cut with the Republican leadership to extend Bush era tax cuts, not only for the middle class, but for the wealthiest Americans.

We are joined now by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He is an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: You heard the president say he hates extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, those earning more than $250,000 a year, but he points out you don't have the votes in the Senate to block that. So it was either everyone losing their tax cuts or swallowing this deal and letting it go forward.

Why are you shaking your head?

SANDERS: Because I don't agree with that judgment.

I think the American people are outraged, frankly. I got 800 calls in my office today alone. I'm the senator from a small state -- 99 percent of them are against this agreement. And the American people are outraged that, at a time when we have a $13 trillion national debt and a collapsing middle class, that the Republicans would hold hostage middle-class tax breaks and extending unemployment benefits in order to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires.

In my view, Wolf, we can win this fight. We can get a handful of Republicans to join us.


BLITZER: Yes, but you have six Democrats in the Senate who are voting with the Republicans, saying, in a time of economic recession, distress, you don't raise taxes on anyone.

SANDERS: Yes, well, that is what the millionaires and billionaires always say.

As Warren Buffett pointed out recently, when times are good, when times are bad, we always -- they always want tax breaks for the very rich. The reality is, according to the CBO, if we're serious about creating jobs in this country, the worst option, the least effective option is giving tax breaks to billionaires. The best option is to rebuild our roads and our bridges and our infrastructure.

BLITZER: All right. I understand what you're saying, Senator, but if you don't have any of the Republicans and six Democrats are with the Republicans, the president says you have got to be practical.


SANDERS: Wolf, that is today.

The point is our job and the president's job is to rally the American people. Poll after poll suggests, tells us strongly that the American people do not want to drive up the national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires.

Our job is to have the American people say to the Republicans, you have talked about your concern, your deep concern about the deficit and the national debt. Why are you voting for a proposal that raises the national debt to give tax breaks to the rich?


BLITZER: I want to bring in our senior political analysts into this conversation with you, Senator. Gloria Borger is here. David Gergen is here.

David, go ahead and ask the senator a question. DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Senator, I'm curious. There is a brewing rebellion among Democrats on Capitol Hill, especially from the progressive end of the Democratic Party. Are the prospects growing that President Obama may actually have a challenge in 2012 with a candidate from the left?

SANDERS: David, that's -- I'm not into discussing and speculating about that.

What I am here to tell you is, I think the vast majority of the American people think we can get a deal that represents the unemployed and the middle class and not the very rich. I don't want to speculate.

GERGEN: And why did the president -- why do you think the president has failed to rally? What has been his biggest mistake getting to this point?

SANDERS: His biggest mistake, I think, is not making it clear to the American people that we can in fact win this fight. If you concede at the very beginning, you are not going to end up with a strong agreement.

What our challenge is, is to ask why we can't get a handful of Republicans, tiny handful, who tell us every day how concerned they are about the deficit. Why aren't they supporting us?



And I spoke with a senior adviser at the White House today who says that they can't get those Republicans, they can't get moderate Republicans that you're probably talking about, like Olympia Snowe, that they had to do this in order to get the tax cuts for the middle class. And they say, with all due respect, it is a fight we could not win on this one.

SANDERS: Well, Gloria, if you concede defeat and surrender before you really engage, yes, you are going to lose. We have got three weeks. Why aren't we putting pressure on the Republicans?


BORGER: What pressure can you put...


BORGER: ... because they have more power when they come in, in January?


SANDERS: No, they don't have -- Gloria, they don't have more power. We have a Democratic president, Democratic House, Democratic Senate today.

I got 800 calls in my office alone.


BORGER: But you are from Vermont, OK? It is not...


BORGER: It is not Texas. It is not...


SANDERS: Let me tell you something. The issue for the president right now is to tell conservatives who tell us how much they're concerned about the national debt that our kids and grandchildren are going to have to pay.

Those people should be calling up Republican senators. I think we can win some of them.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, listen to what the president said today and we will discuss on the other side. Listen to this.


OBAMA: And I don't think there's a single Democrat out there who, if they looked at where we started when I came into office and look at where we are now, would say that somehow we have not moved in the direction that I promised.

Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There's not a single thing that I have said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do.


BLITZER: All right, go ahead, Senator, and respond to the president.

SANDERS: Well, look, don't get me into being overly critical of the president. I like him. I respect him. He's a friend of mine. He happens to be wrong on this issue.

One of the things he did say during the campaign is that we were not going to continue Bush's tax breaks for the richest people in this country. We were not going to lower the estate tax rates that apply only to the top three-tenths of 1 percent. That is what this agreement does.


BLITZER: Hold on one second. Hold on.

David, did the president have a choice, as Senator Sanders is suggesting? Could he have gone further over the next three weeks, until the end of this month, and eyeball to eyeball with the Republicans and see who blinks first? Or did he do what he had to do, he had no choice?


GERGEN: Yes. I wanted to follow up.



BLITZER: I am asking you, David.

GERGEN: Well, I think it -- did he go eyeball to eyeball and blink?

BLITZER: Did he have a choice, as Senator Sanders is suggesting, or did he have no choice?

GERGEN: Oh, I think he had a choice earlier on to really build a campaign and build up momentum. And I think he could have waited perhaps a week or two.

And I think the Senator makes a good point that in effect the White House began signaling some weeks ago that it was going to concede on this before it really got into a fight. And that, I think, they -- I happen to think the president ultimately was going to have to do this, but I am surprised it happened without a fight.

And I think he has done something which has put him in a perilous situation, both with Democrats and perhaps with the country.


BLITZER: Senator, go ahead.

SANDERS: And let me just add this.

If anybody thinks that this agreement, this compromise is the end of what the Republicans want, you are kidding yourselves. They will be back in three or four weeks demanding the privatization of Social Security, cuts in Medicare, cuts in education.

They will be hypocritical enough, mark my words, to say, oh, my word, the deficit and national debt are going up because of the tax breaks for the rich. Now we have got to cut programs for the middle class and working families.

That's what they will do. But we have got to take them on at some point. This is as good an issue as any.

BORGER: Senator, do you think this is a sign of things to come with President Obama?

SANDERS: Again, I don't want to speculate into the future. All I can tell you is, you have a very radical right wing running the Republican Party. They want to take us back into the 1920s. They want to dismember all of the programs that we have passed for 70 years to benefit working families.


BLITZER: All right, the bottom line, though, Senator, does the president have the votes in the United States Senate during this lame- duck session to get this compromise passed?

SANDERS: If we do what we have to do and rally the American people, who are against this agreement, yes, we can get the votes.

BLITZER: You can get the votes?

SANDERS: I am tired of being on the defensive. It is time to put the Republicans on the defensive. They are dead wrong on this issue. The American people don't support them. Let them start conceding for a change.

GERGEN: Senator, as a practical matter, where do you go from here to get this stopped?

SANDERS: Well, we're going to all do everything that we can with grassroots organizations all over this country. We're going to put pressure on the Republicans, who tell us how concerned they are about the deficit, when they are signing on to an agreement will substantially increase the national debt.

BLITZER: Senator Sanders, thanks very much for coming in.


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