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Bernie Sanders

Sanders Plays Offense

Sanders introduces Jeffords global-warming bill and misses his first roll-call vote — a resolution remembering Gerald Ford.


Published January 17, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.

Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was joined by environmental activist types Monday to formally announce he will reintroduce Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' old global-warming bill this week. Sen. Patrick Leahy is a cosponsor.

It really wasn't "news," since everyone knew he was going to do it, but it did come with the upgraded staging that goes with a senator versus a congressman. Ol' Bernardo had about a half-dozen handlers working the room.

The U.S. has 6 percent of the planet's population but produces 25 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. Sanders said the country has a "moral imperative" to take action.

A whole lot of people are hoping it isn't too late, eh?

But while "global warming" was the designated target for the senatorial media event on snowy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President George W. Bush's appearance on "60 Minutes" the previous evening had burned a memory into our mind.

Did Vermont's rookie U.S. senator catch "60 Minutes," we asked?

Sen. Sanders said he had read the show's transcript. It was perfectly clear to him, said Sanders, that "Bush needs to reread the Constitution."

Our current president apparently believes, said Vermont's junior senator, that he "has the right to do anything that he wants to do without the approval of the Congress."

Just a few weeks ago, said Sanders, Bush was talking about the need for bipartisanship, and that the people had spoken on November 7 and wanted the parties to work together.

"What he said on '60 Minutes,'" said Sanders, " is, 'Hey, I've made a decision. I'm going to do it. It doesn't matter what Congress wants. Doesn't matter what the majority party wants. I, the president, am going to do it. I don't have to talk to anybody!'"

So much for the Bush post-election call for bipartisanship, eh?

"It doesn't sound to me like he's listening to his generals," said Ol' Bernardo, er, Ol' Sen. Bernardo, "or like he's listening to the American people. In fact, it doesn't sound to me like he's even listening to the leadership in Iraq. So this will be a very contentious issue, but at the very top of the list," Sanders promised.

Bernie noted he is a cosponsor on Sen. Ted Kennedy's bill requiring congressional approval before sending more soldiers to the U.S. disaster in Iraq. And he hinted that he's working on Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold's bill, which is going to be tougher.

"Before you talk about Iraq, before we talk about Iran," said the Vermonter, "you've got to talk about the Constitution of the United States, and remind President Bush that he does not have unilateral action to do anything he wants anytime he wants it."

We shall see.

"I think you have certainly the worst president in modern American history," said the freshman senator from Vermont, "and he will go down in history as one of the worst presidents in the history of our country. I don't need to beat that dead horse."

And there are signs, he said, that the tide is turning.

"You're seeing a number of Republicans who are saying, 'Sorry, Mr. President, we're leaving the ranch. You're wrong and we are not going to go down with you on a disastrous policy in Iraq.'"

Sanders also predicted moderate Republican senators will be jumping the Bush ship on the global-warming issue.

"You're going to see a peeling away," said Sanders, "of some of the moderate Republicans who are going to say, 'Mr. President, my constituents disagree with you and I'm going to side with my constituents.'"

P.S. The freshman senator is slowly getting some national, and even international, press notice. The New York Times reported this one-liner the other day:

"Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and newly elected, missed what would have been his first vote despite a last-minute dash through the Capitol hallways."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank had a little more detail:

"The Senate held its first roll-call vote of the session — a resolution remembering Gerald Ford — but a dozen senators failed to show up for the vote; one, freshman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), dashed into the chamber five minutes after the vote closed."

"I'm getting used to how it's done in the Senate," said Bernie when we asked him about it on Monday. "In the House you had beepers and all kinds of things," he said. "My fault."

Dean on Bush — Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is certainly on a roll. The outsider from Burlington, Vermont — who led the charge against the war in Iraq on the 2004 presidential campaign trail when that wasn't so popular — is smelling like a rose these days, isn't he?

The Democrats have won back long-missed majorities in both chambers on Capitol Hill. Surely the White House is next?

While he is not a candidate for the presidency in 2008 — at least not yet — Ho-Ho was sounding like one the other day on a satellite hookup with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, from Ch. 3's uplink site in South Burlington.

"We need to be out of Iraq," Dean said to Blitzer and the worldwide audience. "We never should have gone in there. We went in there under false pretenses. The president was not truthful with the American people when we went in."

Wolf played for Howard a clip of Republican Sen. John McCain — who is a candidate — talking tough on Iraq.

Said Dean of Vermont, Sen. McCain "sounds very much like Richard Nixon — you know, just stay a little longer, stay a little longer. We'll stay long enough to lose another 5000 or 10,000 people. It still won't change anything. We never should have gone there in the first place," said Dr. Dean. "Senator McCain bears some responsibility for supporting the president when we went. His prescription for getting out is no prescription for getting out."

He's got a point.

The Pipe Dream Dies? — Last week the state and federal government dropped their appeal of Judge William Sessions' 2004 decision that killed the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway. The government, say opponents, was trying to ram the road through with an ancient, out-of-date and inadequate Environmental Impact Statement prepared way back in the 1980s.

The proposed 15.8-mile Chittenden County ring road has been the transportation pipe dream that IBM in Essex Junction and the county's business/manufacturing sector have longed for since the 1960s. In fact, one 4-mile section bypassing Five Corners in Essex was miraculously built in 1993 under a Circ supporter by the name of Howard Dean.

But here in the first decade of the 21st century, the gas-guzzling Age of the Automobile has, in the minds of many, run its course. The tailpipe emissions are choking us. The temperature's rising. Weather patterns are changing ominously. "Global warming" is the buzz word sweeping Vermont and the nation.

As author/activist Bill McKibben said at the Statehouse hearings on global warming the other day, "Sprawl," and the "Circ Highway" are "global-warming machines."

Now, as far as the Cursed Circ goes, the whole shooting match hangs on the new Environmental Impact Statement the state has been slowly preparing, while looking at all alternatives. A state draft EIS could come as early as March.

The decision by VTrans and the feds to drop their appeal, said Attorney Brian Dunkiel, "reflects our view of the quality of the judge's decision." It means, said the Smart Growth Coalition lawyer, "the old litigation is basically concluded. There may be some housekeeping issues, but it's basically concluded. Now the focus is on the new EIS that VTrans is preparing."

Dunkiel is hoping the "new" Agency of Transportation, under rookie secretary Neale Lunderville — the former whiz-bang, two-time Jim Douglas campaign manager, sees the light and seriously considers the transportation alternatives.

"Those include a series of roundabouts and improvements to Route 2A and other mobility improvements that cost much less than the new highway," said Dunkiel. "They also appear to provide better traffic relief."

Don't hold your breath. You see, no one has been a bigger supporter of the Circ Highway than our Republican Governor Jim Douglas. Douglas made the highway a cornerstone of his business-friendly campaign a few years back. He got the Circ project on the George W. Bush fast track. Gov. Scissorhands has even held a groundbreaking or two for the road.

And in the midst of his recent, sudden conversion to the global-warming bandwagon, Gov. Douglas has continued to tout the need for the Circ Highway in Vermont's busiest county. Chittenden County Democratic State Sens. Jim Condos and Dick Mazza, chair of the transportation committee, have continued to join in that chorus. Old ideas die hard, eh, boys?

"There certainly are decisions and choices that VTrans can make that will contribute to relieving climate change, not contributing to it," said Dunkiel, the enviro attorney, "and this Circ EIS provides them with a perfect opportunity to show how serious they are about being part of the climate change solution."

Good point.

Yours truly has been writing about this looping Chittenden County road to nowhere for more than 25 years. It's long been pitched as the road that, quite simply, must be built to keep IBM here and business growing. But IBM's still here and business keeps growing, right?

"The Circ as originally conceived is dead," declared Conservation Law Foundation Attorney Sandra Levine. "Any project going forward has to address the threats of global warming and sprawl."

What do you think? Maybe it's finally time for Vermont's distinguished state government transportation planners to seriously consider going another way?


Transportation Sec. Neale Lunderville told "Inside Track" on Tuesday that "Chittenden County has grown around the presumption a highway would be built." The Boy Wonder noted, "This is not a battle between Neale and Sandra and Brian." Rather, it's "a decision that will be made from a scientific and objective perspective."

In his next breath, however, Sec. Lunderville took a wee smack at the enemy tree-huggers.

He made it perfectly clear. "They're stopping the road," said Lunderville. Had the enviros not sued and halted the project's A and B sections, he told us, "We'd be near completion of the Williston sections."

Health-Care Follies — It just never ends. Not in the good ol' USA and not in Vermont.

Yours truly just realized we've been covering the health-care reform debate in beautiful Vermont for more than 20 years. Time flies. The players change. But the costs continue to skyrocket, for employer and employee, and many, many thousands continue to do without insurance coverage.

Hey, c'mon. This is America. The private sector has to get its cut, right?

Over lunch hour Tuesday, the Democratic Party gurus at the Vermont State Capitol, House Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, unveiled the latest bad news. The early new Catamount Health Plan numbers are quite dismal.

The much-heralded reform legislation — a big, watered-down compromise between the Democrats, the media champions of health-care reform, and GOP Gov. Jim Douglas, who got the credit for it — is only covering about half as many uninsured Vermonters as projected.

"We don't have the answers why," said Symington.

While the house speaker called the numbers "disappointing," Shumlin told reporters gathered in the Speaker's office over the noon hour, "I'm personally not depressed about it. This is a beginning, not an end."

Beginning of what?

You know, for some of us, Sen. Shumlin, this health-care reform "beginning" began in the early 1980s under GOP Gov. Richard Snelling. King Richard was no fool. He knew it was all about the "private sector" getting its cut. The playing field still hasn't changed in any fundamental way.

The contrast is stark between the never-ending, piecemeal reform of the current Democratic leadership and the real-world reform backed by the rest of the Western world, not to mention their party's progressive wing and the Vermont Progressive Party.

In a recent mailing on Statehouse affairs to Progressive Party members, Rep. Chris Pearson of Burlington did not beat around the bush.

"I wonder how long we will have to wait before Vermont (or the U.S.) joins the advanced world and decides health care is a right?" he writes. "There are so many issues in the Statehouse that are shades of gray, but health care isn't one of them. It's a simple yes-or-no question before us. Are we going to provide health care to everyone? If the answer is yes, then presumably we'd like to do that in the most efficient, cost-effective manner we can: a universal, single-payer plan."

Pearson, a native of Canada where everybody's covered, said the word from the Health Care Committee was, there would be no movement on health-care reform this year. He was informed the committee is busy implementing the Catamount Plan.