Friday, October 30, 2015

Why Did Bernie Sanders Vote for the Budget Compromise?

You may have been sleeping, but the Senate voted overnight to approve the budget agreement hammered out earlier this week by the White House and congressional leadership. There will be no debt default, no government shutdown (assuming Congress can pass an omnibus appropriations bill in December—but since overall spending levels have already been agreed to, that seems quite likely), and no sudden surge in Medicare Part B premiums.

While the budget deal is the product of negotiations between the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate along with the president, the voting patterns on final passage in both congressional chambers have been markedly asymmetrical. The deal received unanimous support from Democrats in both the House and Senate, while 66 percent of Senate Republicans and 68 percent of House Republicans voted no. All three Republican senators now running for president voted against the deal; Rand Paul mounted a (brief) filibuster, while Ted Cruz gave a speech blasting the Republican congressional leadership that referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as "the most effective Democratic leader in modern times."

In the current phase of Republican Party politics, it has become commonplace for most congressional Republicans to vote against an agreement negotiated by their own elected leaders, and for Tea Party-identified senators like Cruz and Paul to seize the opportunity to accuse those leaders of betraying conservative principles. But there is another candidate running for president this year on a platform of maintaining ideological purity and eschewing compromises that give away too many concessions to the other side. You know who I mean. The guy with the hair. No, the other guy with the hair.

So why didn't Bernie Sanders run his own version of a Ted Cruz play and vote against a deal that was endorsed by the conspicuously non-socialist likes of McConnell, John Boehner, John Cornyn, and Paul Ryan? Politico reported today that some congressional Democrats were worried that Sanders might do just that, rallying progressive activists against the budget agreement due to its modest cuts to entitlement programs.

But such a move would carry risks for Sanders. In particular, it would set him up in explicit opposition to a legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration. Sanders's presidential campaign is built on a critique of the contemporary Democratic Party that implicitly faults Obama for insufficient devotion to liberal ideals, but Sanders has been very careful to avoid openly repudiating the incumbent president. Given Obama's very high approval rating among Democrats, Sanders needs the support of Obama fans to have any shot at the nomination, so there is little incentive for him to pick such a fight. (Note that Cruz is on much safer political ground when he attacks his own party's congressional leadership; one recent poll found that Mitch McConnell had a 14 percent approval rating among Republicans.) If anything, Sanders may feel the need to rein in his gadfly reputation a bit in order to reassure Democrats of his own loyalty to a party of which, after all, he is not a formal member.