Bernie Sanders: Speaking Independently

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowBernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont (I), and author of The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class, talks about current budget battles, and his filibuster.

Yesterday the House of Representatives approved a new stopgap spending measure, the first step in avoiding a shutdown and funding the government for three more weeks. Next stop is the Senate, which has until Friday to pass the bill.

Bernie Sanders already knows how he's voting.

The Independent Senator from Vermont says he won't support any bill that doesn't pair spending cuts with revenue measures. He'll vote against the spending bill this week, but he won't go so far as to use the filibuster, which he last did on December 10th, 2010. Sanders held the floor of the Senate for eight and a half hours, railing against the compromise struck between Democrats and Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts.

The reason I went to the floor is not only because I thought the agreement was extremely unfair. The main point is, America today has the most unequal distribution of wealth in any major country on earth. We have a collapsing middle class, an increase in poverty, and the richest one percent earn 23 percent of all income, which is more than the bottom 50 percent. We have the top one percent owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. It seems to me, when you have that kind of inequality, you don't give more tax breaks to the richest people in this country, drive up the national debt, and ask our kids to have to pay that off.

Sanders said the filibuster gave him an opportunity to bring together a number of themes that have defined his political career. In his speech, he decried the tax cut compromise while lamenting the state of education and infrastructure in the country.

But it's the uneven distribution of wealth, he said, that's the elephant in the room.

It's not talked about a whole lot. It's not an issue the president has raised, it's not being raised in Congress or the media. What I think the elections in November were about, a lot of people are angry. They're working longer hours for lower wages than they used to; they look around and see, everything being equal, that if we don't change things, their kids are going to have a lower standard of living than they do; their jobs have gone to china; they have no health care. They're angry, and unfortunately, in many cases they don't know why they're angry, what the causes of the problem are.

Between the tax cut compromise and new rounds of spending cuts, Senator Sanders doesn't see the government confronting the problem either. He's made his dissatisfaction with Democrats, Republicans and even President Obama loud and clear. Which begs the question: would a progressive candidate—perhaps Sanders—consider challenging Obama in a 2012 primary?

Sanders' name came up as a possibility following December's epic filibuster. It helped that the speech was also in the wake of a November beating suffered by Democrats, which challenged confidence in an Obama reelection effort. However, the Senator said he has ruled out a run.

I'm not a Democrat. I'm an Independent. But if a progressive Democrat wants to run, I think it would enliven the debate, raise some issues and people have a right to do that. I've been asked whether I am going to do that. I'm not. I don't know who is, but in a democracy, it's not a bad idea to have different voices out there.