NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders says the president and Democrats in Congress have a mandate following Tuesday’s election to seek tax hikes on the wealthy as part of a balanced approach to lowering the country’s deficits and avoiding the "fiscal cliff."
Not surprisingly, Republicans leaders in Congress disagree. But Sanders, who won a second term on Tuesday, said election results across the country show the American people are squarely behind his and the Democrats’ approach.
"Number 1, the president of the United States won re-election by a very heavy electoral vote and by, I think, 3 million votes in the popular vote. Democrats did phenomenally well in Senate races," Sanders said Friday in a telephone interview. "When we talk about how we go forward, poll after poll has made it very clear in terms of deficit reduction where Americans want to be."
Sanders is calling on Congress to allow tax cuts first signed into law by former President George W. Bush to expire at the end of the year on the wealthiest Americans. That will help the country move forward on serious deficit reduction, he said.
"I think that the way we go forward is that the Democrats have to be very, very strong on this issue," he said. "There are ways to do deficit reduction, but it has to be done in a fair way. In my view, it is a no-brainer. The first thing you have to do is not extend Bush’s tax cuts for the top 2 percent."
In a statement issued this week following Tuesday’s election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose GOP team in the Senate will hold fewer seats beginning in January, expressed a different sentiment.
"The American people did two things: They gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives," McConnell said. "The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the President’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control."
Furthermore, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who will continue as Speaker when the new Congress convenes, has said in interviews this week that he will not raise tax rates on the wealthy.
"I find it amazing that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell keep coming forward and saying, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to raise revenue,’" Sanders said. "That’s what President Obama campaigned on."
"I believe, between the election results, and poll after poll after poll, the American people have been clear," he added.
The president and lawmakers must strike a deal in a lame-duck session of Congress to avoid expiration of tax cuts across the board. A 9 percent cut in the defense budget and expiration of unemployment benefits are also part of the so-called "fiscal cliff" the country faces on Jan. 1.
Sanders said the president should travel to deep red states and make the same case that Democrats won the election on. That includes higher taxes on the rich, but also preserving Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid as spending cuts are sought to avoid the cliff. Sanders said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made it clear to him on a call Thursday that he agrees those entitlement programs need to be protected.
"I would hope that the president understands, based on polls and based on his victory and the Democratic victory in general, that the American people are far more sympathetic to what he wants to do than what the right-wing Republicans want to do," he said. "I believe we can rally the American people in such a way that it will become harder and harder for the right-wing Republicans to defend their positions. I believe the president should lead that charge."
Obama said Friday in remarks delivered at the White House that he was inviting congressional leaders to the White House next week to stave off looming automatic budget cuts laid out in law because Congress could not meet previous deficit reduction goals.
Still, Obama made it clear that any deal must include increased revenue with budget cuts. "This was a central question in the election. It was debated again and again and on Tuesday night we found out that a majority of Americans agree with my approach," the president said.
White House officials later said Obama would veto any legislation passed by Congress that extends tax cuts to those making more than $250,000.
Meanwhile, Sanders said he felt more emboldened by new efforts among Democratic senators to alter Senate rules and limit Republican filibusters. He said he was among a group of senators working on that issue on Friday.
"I think what you’re going to see in the Senate, especially now that we have 55 votes, not 53, is that Democrats are going to deal with the obstructionism of the Republicans in a more aggressive way than in the past," he said. "If I have anything to say about it, we sure are going to look at filibuster rules."
The beefed-up Democratic caucus in January would have to include Sen.-elect Angus King in Maine, also an independent, to reach the 55 votes Sanders referenced. Sanders said he spoke with King by phone Friday, but declined to say if King has decided to caucus with Democrats in the new Senate. King has said in interviews that he will not determine which party’s caucus he will join until he gets to Washington.
Any reform among the Senate’s rules will be done in a way that continues to protect the minority party, according to Sanders. He noted that Democrats are likely to become the minority again someday.
"The minority rights must be protected. You don’t want to run over the minority," he said. "But, the majority is supposed to rule, not the minority. Time after time after time we have seen the minority obstructing the majority."