By Jon Queally, Common Dreams

Staunch progressive Nina Turner has some dire warnings about the current political moment coupled with applause for what her allies both in and outside of Congress have been able to accomplish since they helped elect President Joe Biden last year.

But first, a little context.

Sen. Bernie Sanders made very public and repeated arguments this week about why it was crucial to include both Medicare expansion and policies to lower prescription drug prices in the Democratic Party’s sweeping “Build Back Better Act.” Still, with those provisions largely slashed from the framework unveiled by Biden, the question this weekend is whether there’s anything the U.S. Senator from Vermont and other progressives in Congress can or will do to get those critical provisions added back before a final deal is made or votes are cast.

While the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), blocked a rush to vote on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIB) for a second time on Thursday, the question is whether there is actual agreement among all 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate to pass the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. While Jayapal has said her members in the House have embraced the framework “in principle,” she also made clear they would be thrilled to see key priorities taken out at the insistence of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kysrtsen Sinema (D-Ariz.) put back.

With Biden hoping for swift agreement while he attends the G20 summit in Rome and subsequent UN climate conference in Glasgow, a lingering question on the domestic front is whether Sanders is willing to flex his political muscle—or make it part of his lasting legacy—to draw a deep, red line on the ground to prevent a victory for the Big Pharma lobby that fought so hard against drug pricing and the Medicare expansion.

As Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, told The Hill earlier this week, “Everybody has been concerned about whether or not Manchin and Sinema would support this. The question now is whether Bernie Sanders will support it.”

“I think it will be a very bitter drink if it goes down at all,” added Baker, who referenced “certain red lines that have been crossed” in the eyes of Sanders.

In a tweet Friday that suggested he was still unhappy about the exclusion of drug price reform from the package—but offering no indication of what course of action he might take next—Sanders said: “A life-saving prescription drug does not mean anything if you cannot afford to buy it.” He subsequently tweeted:

Winnie Wong, a former adviser to Sanders during the 2020 campaign, told Common Dreams that Sanders should not sit back but instead take a stand to mobilize his supporters and leverage the overwhelming popularity of lower drug prices and the expansion of Medicare to include not only hearing aids, but also eye and dental coverage.

Nina Turner against a light and dark green background
Photo by Gage Skidmore

“Bernie should seize the moment to rally his still sizable but very disgruntled base of supporters to spring into well-organized action in support of Medicare expansion and fair drug pricing,” said Wong. In her mind, such a push would have to come directly from Sanders “giving directives from the inside to the outside,” but in coordination with outside allies and other progressives in Congress.

She said such a push—especially at this hour—”will take a diversity of tactics” to be successful, something she said Sanders certainly understands. Democratic leadership “continue to betray his confidence,” said Wong, “and by extension millions of poor people in this country.”

While it certainly wouldn’t sit well with the Biden White House or Democratic leadership, Wong said Sanders “owes them nothing.”

“Refreshing to see the progressives holding so strong”

Meanwhile, in a lengthy phone interview with Common Dreams on Friday evening, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, the national co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign who lost a close battle for an open seat for the U.S. House earlier this year in Ohio, offered her thoughts on the current political moment, including what Sanders might do next and why progressives both inside and outside of Congress are doing exactly the right thing by “holding the line” against the corporate Democrats in their ranks.

“It’s refreshing to see the progressives holding so strong,” she said. “And Senator Sanders has definitely played a role in that and no doubt that [Jayapal] has certainly set a certain tone for the progressives, and they are by and large adhering to that and not necessarily inclined to accept the crumbs that are coming from the master’s table. And when I say ‘the masters,’ I mean the corporate interest that guide every move of Manchin, Sinema, and others.”

According to Turner, the dynamic in the Senate is clear, if not troubling. When it comes to what Sanders, or any other small group of more progressive senators, should do to move Manchin and Sinema closer to the party consensus, she argues there’s more to it than is often reported in the corporate or mainstream press.

“If you’ve got 48 Senators all in agreement,” she said, “and then we got Vice President Kamala Harris who can break a tie, and then you have two holdouts—then why aren’t all 48 of them bringing the muscle on their two colleagues?”

The absence of that pressure, whether in public or behind closed doors, said Turner, “leads me to suspect that some of those folks are hiding behind Manchin and Sinema.”

In Turner’s mind, “the Democrats are going to have to deliver, and the progressives understand that. The progressives are doing more to save the Democratic Party than the corporate Democrats are, meaning that in 2022 something material has got to change for those voters that we went and got in Georgia; those voters that we went and got all over this country to make President Biden President Biden. Those people are going to want to see something that changes their lives.”

Turner warned that even if significant policies are achieved and passed in the Build Back Better Act, there’s a danger if the implementation is not swift enough or those policies are not strong enough to be truly or immediately felt by working-class people and low-income families.

She believes Democrats must be asking themselves how the implementation of this legislation will “move the needle materially for people in this country” and that simply talking about “the many beautiful things that are still left in the bill” may not be enough to make up for what Manchin, Sinema, and others were able to force out.

The right time to make some serious demands of Biden

“Progressives need to continue to hold the line both in the House and in the Senate,” said Turner. And, she said, they should make some demands.

“One type of demand that they can make, is to do a straight-up deal with the president, which is ‘We want these things by executive order, and we want them right now.’ One demand would be canceling the $1.9 trillion worth of student debt.”

Another example, she said, is for progressives to demand that Biden use his executive power “in a deeper way” to fight for voting rights.

“You have black organizations nationwide,” Turner said, “protesting and marching and begging—begging—a Democratically-controlled Congress and a Democratic presidency to something substantial on voting rights—what the hell does that look like?”

The optics and reality of black voters getting themselves arrested while protesting for their right to vote “in the 21st century” while Democrats are in power, she added, is a “lunacy” that cannot be ignored. “And you expect these same people to go back into the black community—in particular, not just exclusively—and put these Democrats back in office? Why would we do that?”

“I think progressives can push Biden to be bolder than he ordinarily would be—and they have already. So I want to commend progressives for all that they have already done, but there is more to be done,” she said. “And if Manchin and Sinema can push their will on the entire U.S. Senate and president, then the progressives almost 100-strong should damn sure be able to push their will too. They should not move. They got to hold. It’s too much at stake.”

Time to keep quiet or time to stand and deliver?

While Democrat leaders like House Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leaders have said they want to focus on what’s “in” the bill and not what’s been taken out, Turner said that is not a game progressives should play.

“They need to blast the hell out of it for leaving out certain things, like paid family leave and 2-year community college, and the climate,” Turner said. “Certainly, in my elected experience, I’ve had to vote for things that I didn’t want to vote for, but they have a soapbox, and they can get up there and blast it and name what their agenda is just to remind people that they are going to keep fighting.”

“Hell no,” Turner said on keeping quiet about what the corporate interests have managed to strong-arm out of the legislation thus far. “They are duly elected. And somebody has to stand up for the people. The president is not their boss. And the leaders of both chambers are not anybody’s bosses. Now you might give your colleagues some deference, but what do the progressives look like not talking about what’s not in the bill, because that is our hallmark. That is what separates the progressives from the corporatists is us being able to stand up and fight and go the extra mile.”

“Progressives have to tell the truth,” said Turner. “Because if they don’t, progressives are going to risk looking like hypocrites and being just like the rest of those Democrats in there. We can’t afford it. So I think they should tell the American people and tell the progressive base how hard they fought, what’s not in the bill, why they are upset about it, and that they are going to fight—and, by the way, this is what we got.”

However, argues Turner, progressive lawmakers have to get something. “If they just give their votes and they get nothing, it’s going to impact the progressive movement. Because if you’re a progressive out there every day and see that two people can totally dominate the entire Congress and the presidency, and you got a hundred progressives that can’t get anything? No. That’s not going to work politically for progressives.”

If that happens, warns Turner, “the Democratic Party’s going to lose, and the progressive movement will lose if progressives don’t hold the line.”

Unlike Manchin and Sinema, progressives will not “burn it all down.”

Turner said she understands deeply how much pressure the current dynamics place on those lawmakers who have held the line, “because unlike the other [corporate-backed] side which saying, ‘Burn it all down,'” progressives are not saying anything like that.

“Because we have a conscience,” she added, “it’s hard to be in a bargaining position and say, ‘Give us this or just burn it down.’ That’s not the constitution of the progressives.”

Progressives have a much different set of commitments, said Turner, compared to Sinema and Manchin who are willing to just walk away from a deal.

“They specialize in walking away and saying to hell with their people,” Turner said of the two holdouts in the Senate. “West Virginia is the sixth poorest state in the United States of America and Manchin is pretending like he’s helping them. But this is not about the makeup of the state. Look at the polling, even West Virginians agree with a lot of what is both of these bills. This is really about Manchin being bought and sold and choosing the owner-donor class over his constituents. He’s not doing the will of the people, and neither is Sinema.”

“So when these moderates and the corporatists and these talking heads on television want to argue that he’s a senator from West Virginia… then let’s talk about the needs of the people from West Virginia. He has the people on his side, so why can’t he do the right thing? Last time I checked, there were poor people in West Virginia, Arizona, Ohio, California, Illinois—all over this country.”

Why Democrats cannot wait

The big warning from Turner when it comes to expanding Medicare or winning lower prescription drug costs is that if Democrats don’t get it now, the chances are “slim to none” that they get it later.

“We’re going into 2022 midterms,” said Turner, “and it would be delusional to think that anybody’s going to be pushing on policy. They are going to be focused on trying to maintain and gain seats. So the people will lose yet again, and Big Pharma and Big Oil and Big Everything is going to win again. So if it doesn’t happen now, it ain’t gonna happen.”

Progressives have to go now, according to Turner. “Power is finite, and they have to capture it right now,” she said. “They can’t wait.”

With Medicare and drug cost reductions so outrageously popular among votes, Turner’s advice is that neither Sanders—nor any Democrat for that matter—should agree to vote on the reconciliation bill without those provisions added back in.

Progressives in the House and Senators like Sanders and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said Turner, “have to be just as determined as Sinema and Manchin have been and say: ‘We’re not voting on this.'”

Lawmakers, she said, “could do this behind the scenes for a little bit, but then they are going to have to come out in the open.”

Given her experience with Sanders, Turner said she knows “he’s not just sitting back,” but that he’s “thinking this thing through” to determine what comes next. And he’s not alone, she said, nor should he be.

“Senator Sanders is a part of this. Chairperson Jayapal and the CPC are a part of this. Everybody has a role to play on the progressive side,” she said.

Again congratulating progressives for holding the line, Turner said now there is a new “point of no return” and decisions are going to need to be made. “How far are those who hold the progressive banner in Congress willing to go to be champions of the people? They should not fret one bit, because the people are definitely on their side.”

And “don’t fall for the banana in the tailpipe,” warned Turner, over the corporate spin that it is progressives who are holding up the passage of the infrastructure bills.

“Progressives are not holding this up,” she explained. “The progressives are actually upholding the president’s agenda. The irony of that!”

‘Whose side are you on?’

In the end, Turner said the question must be: “Whose side are you on? This just isn’t about the president getting a plane and heading to Europe. Let’s get some real substance delivered to the people. How did we go from $6 trillion down to $3.5 trillion and now less than $2 trillion? And we’re going to dress this up, put some lipstick on it, and tell the American people how wonderful this is? It’s a bunch of B.S. is what it is.”

With poll after poll showing that policies to reduce drug prices or expand healthcare access are extremely popular across the political spectrum, but especially among Democratic voters, Turner is far from the only one warning that the party will pay a high price politically if they fail to deliver.

“You can’t go home to voters after promising this for decades with nothing to show for it, when there is an opportunity,” Bill Sweeney, senior president for government affairs at AARP, told the Washington Post earlier this week. “The voters will know you didn’t deliver.”

For his part, Sanders has been abundantly clear about the need for the drug industry to be knocked down from its politically powerful perch. Still, it remains to be seen if there is anywhere in Congress a political power greater than the army of corporate lobbyists that patrol its halls.

“For too long, much too long,” said Sanders in a live-streamed address earlier this week, “the business model of the pharmaceutical industry has been fraud. For far too long it has not been Congress that has been regulating the pharmaceutical industry, it has been the other way around. It has been the pharmaceutical industry that has been regulating Congress.”

“Well,” he said, “those days must come to an end. And they will come to an end if members of Congress finally have the courage to stand up to the prescription drug companies.”