By Sam Rosenthal

While Democratic Party leadership descends into another procedural morass spurred by Republican intransigence, Bernie Sanders and other Congressional progressives are taking their case for massive public spending to, well, the public. 

Sanders has taken the show on the road in recent weeks, holding rallies to drum up support for the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget bill. At a time when most Democrats are stuck in meetings on Capitol Hill, Sanders and other progressives are treating the push to pass the huge budget bill like a campaign, reaching out to their base of supporters and making their case to voters beyond the progressive universe. 

In a recent email to supporters, Sanders outlined the challenges to passing the spending legislation:

We are taking on a pharmaceutical industry that has spent $4.7 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions over the past 20 years, an average of almost $250 million per year. And just last week, they launched another seven-figure ad buy against provisions that would save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and lower the cost of drugs by 50 percent by having Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices. …

We are taking on a fossil fuel industry that, between 2000 and 2016, spent more than $2 billion lobbying against legislation to protect our planet from climate change, and has only ramped up the pace of their efforts since then. They too recently launched a major advertising effort against the bill that would finally take on the threat of climate change by transforming our energy systems away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy — while creating good-paying jobs for working people and young people.

We are taking on business lobbyists that have described our bill as an “existential threat” because at a time when the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider, when two people own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent, and when some of the wealthiest people and biggest businesses pay nothing in federal income taxes, we are asking the billionaire class and large profitable corporations to finally pay their fair share in taxes.

And, in a thinly veiled jab at his colleagues in the Senate, Sanders wrote that he “get[s] that the pharmaceutical industry owns the Republican Party and that no Republican will vote for this legislation, but there is no excuse for Democrats not supporting it.” Sanders was referring primarily, of course, to Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Joe Machin (WV) who have both voiced opposition to the budget bill. In their newfound role as deficit hawks, Manchin and Sinema could entirely scuttle Democrats’ spending plans, since the party needs all 50 Democratic Senators to support any legislation they hope to pass through the reconciliation process. (Perhaps unrelatedly, Manchin is currently the largest recipient of oil and gas industry donations while Sinema is one of the top recipients of pharmaceutical industry funds.)

But, with long-sought policy objectives, including child care subsidies, tax code changes that would target the wealthiest Americans, clean energy funding, and paid leave, many progressive legislators are digging in for a long fight with the party’s right wing. With a significant caucus in Congress, and a general sense that progressive policy is aligned with public opinion, progressive lawmakers are confident in their increased leverage. Whether so-called moderate Democrats will bow to intraparty pressure or stay beholden to their donors, however, is another question.