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Sen. Bernie Sanders Aims To Reshape A 'Rigged' Tax System

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders helped push Democrats to the left as the outsider progressive in two presidential campaigns. Now the Democrats control the Senate. Sanders is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. And today, he's using that role to introduce new bills. We have exclusive news on what the bills say. They would increase the corporate tax rate to 35% and impose a new progressive estate tax for the richest Americans. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Bernie Sanders is quietly turning the committee best known for writing budgets that never become law into what is essentially a committee on progressive change.

BERNIE SANDERS: What we want to do is use the committee to focus on the crises facing the working class of this country, the middle class of this country.

SNELL: Sanders is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee now. His first job was to help pass the $1.9 trillion American rescue plan, a bill he says was about showing voters that Congress could follow through on the kinds of promises Democrats made on the campaign trail.

SANDERS: I think we are beginning to give hope to the American people that government can finally begin responding to their needs rather than just the needs of lobbyists or wealthy campaign contributors.

SNELL: The bill includes billions for unemployment insurance, housing vouchers, rent assistance, stimulus checks and direct aid to millions of people. But passing that bill also turned a bright light on the reality that not all popular progressive ideas have universal buy-in from Democrats, like a $15 minimum wage. Centrist senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are not on board. Sanders admits it's a challenge to go from moving the party platform to moving votes in the Senate.

SANDERS: There is not unanimity within the Democratic caucus. And my job is to rally the American people and to create a strategy.

SNELL: Sanders says he has some ideas. But he's still figuring it out. And yes, he says, change in the Senate will almost certainly involve doing away with the filibuster.

SANDERS: We have got to say that majority rules. When the American people want something, when the House wants something, we cannot have just a minority of senators preventing us from moving. So yes, I do support, at this point, repealing the filibuster.

SNELL: But that's another issue where Democrats aren't unanimous. And they'd need to be if they're going to make a change. Sanders himself used to be cautious about ending the filibuster. Doing away with the 60-vote requirement to pass legislation would give Republicans the chance to reverse policies and pass their own priorities if they controlled the Senate again. Sanders says, in the best possible world, the Senate would debate and negotiate. And bills would evolve.

SANDERS: We're not in the best of all possible worlds.

SNELL: The fight over the procedural hurdle in the Senate will be the central question for Democrats this year. But Sanders is also looking ahead to the next round of budget reconciliation, a second chance for Democrats to band together to pass legislation without the help of any Republicans. He says the last reconciliation bill was all about rescue and recovery. This bill, which could include billions or even trillions in new spending, needs to be about transforming the economy.

SANDERS: What the second reconciliation bill deals with is the long-term structural problems that we've had in this country long before the pandemic.

SNELL: That involves traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges and water systems. But Sanders says it should also involve climate change and housing policy. And his agenda will also focus on reshaping the tax code. Today, he's holding a hearing on inequality of the tax system and introducing two new bills to restore the corporate tax rate to 35% and impose a new progressive estate tax for the wealthiest half of 1%. As for running for president again...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Well, I am very content being the chairman of the budget committee and Vermont senator right now.

SNELL: Right now, he has a committee to worry about.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "TO THE NTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.