Sanders part of “new look” in Senate

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(Host) There’s a slightly different look to the U.S. Senate this year.

Part of it is the election of nine freshmen who are either Democrats or caucus with the Democrats. That flipped control of the chamber.

But “who’s” in that class is what gives the Senate a different feel – like Independent Bernie Sanders, progressive Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and populist Jim Webb of Virginia.

From Capitol Hill, Chad Pergram examines how Sanders and his colleagues could have a unique impact on what is usually a staid institution.

(Roll Call Vote) “Mr. Brown, Mr. Brownback, Mr. Bunning, Mr. Burr…”

(Pergram) It’s more than just the different names during a roll call vote. It’s the “politics” and approach of freshman senators like Sanders which could contort the Senate.

(Leahy) “I think it’s an exciting new class “

(Pergram) Democratic Vermont Senator Pat Leahy says Sanders and Virginia Senate rookie Jim Webb are known for their plain-speaking styles and retail politics. He believes that’s a prescription the Senate needs.

(Leahy) “I think we saw this in Jim Webb giving the response to the State of the Union. It reflected a new, dynamic one. It makes me think very much of the class I came in here with in ’75 – A lot of people with new idea, fresh ideas. I think it’s going to be very good for the Senate.”

(Pergram) But Miami University of Ohio political science Department Chairman Ryan Barilleaux says the Senate could pose a challenge to freshman like Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

(Barilleaux) “The Senate is often regarded as the body that tends to draw the more kind of upper-class politician, or more the ones who have the veneer or sometimes the depth of being statesmanlike.”

(Pergram) Barilleaux predicts that could spell some interesting confrontations in the Senate between Sanders and his classmates and the Senate’s old guard.

(Barilleaux) “Populists have been thought of as people who tend to put a premium on trying to shake things up. The Senate is not a body that likes to be shaken up.”

(Pergram) Bernie Sanders is ready to take on the status quo. But he knows there are hurdles for freshman block.

(Sanders) “I think we can have a significant impact. The truth of the matter is that the Senate is a pretty conservative institution. And I would hope that a number of us who were just elected as progressives will be speaking up for the declining middle class, for people who don’t have any health insurance.”

(Pergram) Sanders believes the time is ripe for a different approach to issues in the often-laid back Senate.

(Sanders) “What we can never forget is that the Congress whether it’s the House or the Senate is not held in particularly high-esteem by the average American. And that is because they perceive we are not listening to their needs and we’re not responding to their needs. And I would hope that an increasing number of us would say, yeah, we’re here to represent ordinary people, not big money interests. And we’re going to make this institution do just that.'”

(Pergram) For 16 years, Sanders thumped his brand of progressive populism in the House. Middlebury College political scientist Bert Johnson says that made Sanders stand out in that massive, 435-member body, sometimes as a gadfly. Particularly early in his career.

(Johnson) “What he’s done has been to try to affect the broader debate rather than to introduce bills that have a great chance of getting passed.”

(Pergram) But Johnson predicts if Sanders plays his cards right, his priorities could produce substantial, legislative yields.

(Johnson) “He has a couple of strong allies in say for example Senator Barbara Boxer who is co-sponsoring one of his bills on global warming. And I think that’s one example where he can work with members of the senior Democratic Party on some important issues.”

(Pergram) And there’s the rub. Working together is the coin of the realm in the Senate. And that goes against the grain of populist, progressives like Bernie Sanders says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

(Sabato) “They’re very independent, and they’re inclined to go their own way and not listen to their party leaders. In other words they don’t take direction well. It’s one of the things that makes them popular at home.”

(Pergram) That could spell problems for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, especially if the freshmen try to push their agenda too far. But that doesn’t seem to bother Reid.

(Reid) “Every time I’m reminded that we have nine new Democratic senators puts a smile on my face. And they are just the most knowledgeable, pleasant people I have dealt with. I mean I can’t say enough things about them.”

(Pergram) It was the election of senators like Sanders that helped crown Reid as Majority leader. And after years in the minority, that may be enough to placate Reid, regardless of the politics or methods of freshmen like Bernie Sanders.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram on Capitol Hill.

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