Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders embarked on a marathon speech on the Senate floor Friday in protest of the tax-cut proposal President Obama struck with Republican leaders this week.
Sanders is an independent, but he caucuses with the Democrats and is known as one of the most liberal members of the upper chamber. Hours after Obama announced his compromise package to extend the Bush tax cuts Monday night, Sanders warned that he would "do whatever I can" to stop the legislation from passing the Senate, including mounting a filibuster of the bill.
The agreement that Obama announced Monday night would extend for two years the Bush tax cuts for all earners, while also continuing current tax rates on dividends and capital gains. In addition, the estate tax, which expired in 2009, would be temporarily set at 35 percent with a $5 million exemption, and extended unemployment benefits would continue for 13 months. Obama also said that negotiators had agreed to a one-year, 2-percentage point cut in the payroll tax for all workers.
Sanders began his speech just before 10:30 a.m. Friday and opened by saying he did not want to create a scene.
"I'm not here to set any great records or to make a spectacle," Sanders said. "I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have got to do a lot better than this agreement provides."
But Sanders quickly became a Washington spectacle nonetheless, as his speech was quickly dubbed "the Filibernie" and Capitol tourists filed into the Senate chamber's visitors' gallery to get a glimpse of him holding forth on the shortcomings of the tax-cut package. Within hours, a website had launched at www.IsBernieSandersStillTalking.com
Under the Senate rules, Sanders could take sips of water during his speech, but could nor eat or sit down. Instead, he stood throughout his eight-and-a-half-hour talkathon, and was joined twice by other senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who have also raised objections to the deal the president negotiated.
Sanders' speech was not technically a filibuster, because the Senate has not yet moved to vote on the bill, but the action played out like a scene from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," with the habitually disheveled Sanders reading newspaper articles, telling anecdotes about his time as mayor of Burlington, Vt., and railing against what he said was the grossly unfair nature of the tax-cut deal.
In addition to picking apart details of the bill, like the payroll tax holiday and the new estate tax rates, Sanders railed against the wealthy in the country. "How much more do they want? How much more do they need?" he asked rhetorically. He later compared needed infrastructure in the country to dental work. ("It's like having a cavity. You can wait to get your cavity filled, as I have, and then you have to get a root canal later.") He apologized to those listening to his speech if he repeated stories.
After nearly nine hours, he concluded, "We can defeat this proposal and come up with one that is fairer to the middle class and fairer to our children."