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Politics & Government

Sen. Sanders On GOP Efforts To Replace Obamacare

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democrats don't have many options when it comes to blocking the Republican health care bill. So last night, they pulled the one lever they do have. They took to the Senate floor and railed against the legislation. It's part of an effort to slow down the work of the Senate, in protest against the Republican bill that's being produced almost entirely behind closed doors. Republicans hope to vote on the legislation before the July 4 recess.

For more, we reached Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He is on the Senate health committee.

What do you know about the Senate Republicans' new health care bill?

BERNIE SANDERS: That's a very good question. I know nothing about it and nor does any member of the Democratic caucus, nor do most Republicans, nor do most Americans. What is going on is that we have 10 or a dozen Republicans meeting behind closed doors determining the future of one-sixth of the American economy.

What we do know is that it is going to be largely based on the disastrous House bill which passed last month, which threw 23 million Americans off of health insurance, raised premiums for older workers, defunded Planned Parenthood and which would give enormous tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country while cutting Medicaid by over $800 billion. So we think that the Senate bill is being worked on based on the House bill that there will be some changes, but I have no reason to believe that it will not be a disastrous piece of legislation.

MARTIN: You wrote last week in an op-ed in The New York Times - and I'm quoting here - "too many in our party cling to an overly cautious centrist ideology." Do you think that applies specifically in this case to health care?

SANDERS: Yes, I do. I mean, I think that Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, took us a step forward. It provided health insurance for over 20 million more Americans. That's no small thing. It did away with the obscenity of pre-existing conditions and a number of other essential health care benefits that are now guaranteed to the American people. So it made some real change.

But, Rachel, at the end of the day, the American people in Congress have got to ask themselves a very simple question. Why are we the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a right? Why do we pay double per capita for health care compared to any other major country? Why do we pay the highest prices in the world by far for prescription drugs? My view is we should join the rest of the industrialized world and work toward a Medicare for all single-payer program.

MARTIN: So how do you do that? Because at this moment, Democrats can't even get into the room to defend the Affordable Care Act. Is tacking so far to the left going to get you anywhere in this moment?

SANDERS: It's not a question of tacking to the left. What we have right now is a Republican leadership which is very, very far to the right and way, way outside of the mainstream of where the American people are. This health care proposal passed in the House. I don't have the numbers in front of me but you've seen them. I mean, it is widely disapproved by the American people. The American people do not believe it makes sense to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the top 2 percent and throw 23 million Americans off of health care. That's not what the American people want.

So what - I think what the Democrats have got to do - it's not a very radical idea - is actually listen to where the American people are. The American people, in fact, within - certainly within the Democratic ranks do want to move toward a single-payer system. You're seeing real progress in the California Legislature and in the New York state Legislature to do just that.

The American people want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, 15 bucks an hour, want to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, pay equity for women, tackling climate change and transforming our energy system. These are not radical ideas. This is what the American people want.

MARTIN: Some Republicans have complained vocally that they haven't seen the bill, either.

SANDERS: That's right.

MARTIN: Some like Rob Portman of Ohio said if it's anything like the House bill in terms of the number of people who would lose Medicaid insurance in particular, he won't support it. So are you finding like minds to work with?

SANDERS: Well, I think what Rob has got to say is before - it's not even a question of what is in the bill. He doesn't know what's in the bill. And so what the Republicans have got to say, as the Democrats, look, bring your bill forward. I'm a member, Rachel, of the Health education committee. I spent - in terms of the Obamacare - I spent hundreds of hours in hearings and discussions dealing with amendments. These guys are not providing Republicans, people like Portman, with an understanding of what's in the bill. So I think what Portman and other Republicans should be saying, hey, we're not going to vote for any bill that's just presented to us.

MARTIN: Are they your only lever? Moderate Republicans, is that your only way in?

SANDERS: Well, we are looking right now - we are looking right now as to what our capabilities are. You asked that question. It's a good question. What can we do to make sure that the American people have a right to see this bill and to understand what's in this bill and debate this bill before it is voted on? And I think that the Democrats should do everything possible to delay - to make sure that the American people have a chance to see this bill before it's voted on.

MARTIN: I want to shift the conversation before I let you go because we are talking just days after this shooting that happened. The ranking member in the House is still being hospitalized. This was the shooting last week at the Republican baseball practice. Turned out that the shooter, this man, had volunteered on your presidential campaign. What crossed your mind when you first saw that?

SANDERS: Well, it's horrible. Look. First of all, let me wish Representative Scalise and the others who were wounded a full recovery. This is a tragedy. Violence has no place in American politics. And all of us have got to do everything we can to see that something like this never happens again. What I can tell you, Rachel, is that during the course of my presidential campaign, we had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, people actively involved.

We had rallies with 25,000, 30,000 people, not one scintilla of violence in any of these rallies. The overwhelming, overwhelming majority of progressives in this country understand what Dr. Martin Luther King taught us is that change comes from the bottom on up. It's when millions of people stand together and fight for justice, and you do it in a non-violent way.

MARTIN: You've been in Congress, first the House, then the Senate since 1991. Fair to say you've seen a lot of partisanship in your time, I imagine.

SANDERS: Yes.

MARTIN: Does this feel different to you?

SANDERS: I think that if you look at this health care bill - and I'm trying to be as objective as I can - it is about the worst piece of legislation that I've ever seen, the bill that passed the House. You cannot give huge tax breaks to billionaires and the drug companies and throw 23 million people off of health insurance.

And then when you look at Trump's budget which would provide $3 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent when the top 1 percent is already doing phenomenally, well - and you get that money by making massive cuts in programs for working-class families, I quite honestly have never seen legislation like that since I've been involved in congressional politics.

MARTIN: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a member of the Senate committee on health care. Thanks so much for your time, Senator.

SANDERS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.