AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The calendar says December 15, but it is Groundhog Day on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are still trying to come up with a coronavirus relief package. The current bipartisan version is actually two bills. The first would deliver enhanced unemployment benefits, protection from eviction and small-business support. The second bill offers liability protections for firms and aid for state and local governments. Both of those have been divisive issues. What neither bill includes is direct payments to individuals, and that is something Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been calling for. He joins us now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
BERNIE SANDERS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So let me ask you - I mean, Congress hasn't been able to agree on any new type of federal aid since May, and we are now rapidly approaching the deadline for enhanced unemployment benefits. The eviction moratorium is ending very, very soon. Would you really vote against more federal aid just because that aid did not include direct payments?
SANDERS: It's not just because, Ailsa. We have right now probably the worst set of crises in this country since the Great Depression. There was a poll that just came out the other day, and they asked the American people, what is the top priority that you have in terms of congressional help during the emergency? And what people said is direct payments. I do not believe that it is appropriate for members of Congress to go back to their families for the Christmas holidays while so many millions of families in this country are struggling just to stay alive.
CHANG: Well, just as you say it, people are struggling. Congress has been debating this for seven months. I do have to push you on this. People are losing their homes now. They don't have enough to eat now. Democrats do not have the majority in the Senate. So isn't passing some aid now better than passing no aid?
SANDERS: Well, let's - Democrats do not have the majority in the Senate. They do have the majority in the House. And you have a president of the United States - you know, Trump, who I agree with on absolutely nothing. You know what? Donald Trump says we should have direct payments. I believe a majority of the members of the Senate wanting direct payments. Why is direct payments not in the bill right now? That's the question we should be asking.
CHANG: But I do have to ask again. I mean, it is good to stand on principle, but what do you say to people who are going to be evicted at the end of the month or people who are visiting food banks right now? How do you explain to them why...
CHANG: ...Congress has not been able to pass any legislation, why they just have to sit tight?
SANDERS: Unfortunately, what you say is this bill is not going to do what has to be done to protect those people. We do need to make sure that people have the money to avoid eviction. That's what I'm trying to do here. This is a totally inadequate bill. Here's the point. In previous legislation, Democrats said we need 3.4 trillion. Do you know how much new money is in this bill? - $188 billion, 5% of what Democrats previously asked for. That's not a negotiation. You know, negotiation - you get 50%. You get 60%. You get 40%. Democrats are getting 5%.
CHANG: Let's talk about the Biden transition. I'm sure you are aware of criticism from progressives about the choices he has made so far. Do you agree with that criticism - that many of Biden's top choices have just simply been too moderate?
SANDERS: Well, this is what I do believe, Ailsa. The progressive movement in this country constitutes, I'm guessing, 35-, 40% of the Democratic Party. And what I have been disappointed with up to now is that that movement does not have representation in the Biden administration at a Cabinet level.
CHANG: And have you expressed that concern directly to Biden yet?
SANDERS: Yes, I have, and to his - to - yes, I have.
CHANG: And what have they said...
CHANG: ...Back to you?
SANDERS: It's a private conversation. But that is my concern. And I hope that they will address that.
CHANG: All right. Before I let you go, you have made a case for yourself to become secretary of labor. May I ask you...
SANDERS: Oh, I have not...
CHANG: ...Do you have any announcements you'd like to make?
SANDERS: I have not made a case for myself. The case that I have made is that the Biden administration needs strong progressives who are going to stand up and fight for working families who are now in terrible economic condition.
CHANG: Oh, I'm sorry. I misunderstood. I thought you were volunteering yourself for the job.
SANDERS: It's not a question of volunteering. If I am nominated, I would give serious thought to doing it if I had a portfolio that allowed me to stand up for workers. So the answer is yes. But it's not just me.
CHANG: Are you having conversations with the Biden team about yourself being on the Cabinet for any of the positions?
SANDERS: I talk to the Biden campaign fairly often, and my staff does, on a number of issues.
CHANG: All right. We will leave it there. That is Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Thank you again for speaking with us.
SANDERS: Well, thank you very much. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.