Politics

Senate Colleagues Predict More Clout for Sanders

Presidential run has elevated him from a Senate backbencher

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is facing calls from several Senate colleagues to end his presidential campaign. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Bernie Sanders is vowing to continue his presidential campaign , but his fellow senators are already contemplating his return to the Senate now that Hillary Clinton has clinched the nomination.  

On the eve of Tuesday's primaries, a few of his supporters in Congress said they were remaining loyal to the Vermont independent.  

"I'm feeling 'The Bern,'" said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who pledged to remain on Sanders' team until he drops out.  

Sanders' lone Senate backer, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, was less definitive.  

[ Clinton Claims Victory, Savors Historic Milestone ]  

"Once we have a nominee who has the majority of pledged delegates, who has the majority of votes cast, in my mind, we have our nominee,"said Merkley, who added that Sanders was expected to head back home to Vermont next.  

"If Secretary Clinton reaches those standards tonight, he’ll be considering his path forward," Merkley said. "I think the challenge then becomes to bring the sections of the party together behind our nominee."   

Sanders has faced increasing pressure from Democrats to step aside and allow Clinton to focus squarely on the Republican nominee, billionaire Donald Trump. The pressure built after the Associated Press reported on Monday that Clinton had reached the number of delegates necessary to secure the nomination.  

The White House said President Barack Obama would meet with Sanders on Thursday at the White House, at the request of the Vermont senator.  

"The President looks forward to continuing the conversation with Senator Sanders about how to build on the extraordinary work he has done to engage millions of Democratic voters, and to build on that enthusiasm in the weeks and months ahead," Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.  

While he initially said he would continue fighting for the nomination until the convention in late July, news reports suggest that Sanders will lay off half his staff on Wednesday.  

[ Sanders' Long-Shot Delegate Hunt ]  

Sanders' colleagues in the Senate cautioned that it would be up to him to decide when to end his campaign, but several said it was time to do so. Whether he is welcomed with open arms if he relents and returns to the Senate depends his next moves.  

Sanders has not caste a Senate vote in six months, according to records on his Senate website. But a number of his colleagues said he will have more influence in the chamber given his presidential run.  

"I think [Sanders] wants to be part of the Senate and its future," Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said. "How he handles this from the convention forward to the future is going to be a critical part of his image and his effectiveness.”   

Durbin mentioned Sanders phoning him "out of the blue" three weeks ago to discuss violence attributed to his supporters at the Nevada state convention.  

"My impression was he reached out because he believes that some day he’ll be coming home to the Senate," Durbin said.   

Durbin noted Sanders was a "backbencher in the Senate" before his presidential run, and said his rise as a self-described democratic socialist who was able to garner millions of votes and thousands of people at his rallies was remarkable.  

[ The Emotional Life of Sanders Supporters ]  

"It’s a different Bernie Sanders when he will return," Durbin said.  

Sanders' friend across the aisle predicted he would have more clout among both parties.  

“Frankly I think his stature will be dramatically improved in terms of the senators he served with, both Republicans and Democrats," said Oklahoma GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe. "He has a tenacity that not a lot of people have”  

Other senators were not so sure.  

"Let's see," Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy said of his fellow Vermonter's potential influence in the chamber.  

Some said they will be watching if Sanders works to unite the party or further divides it.  

“I think the arms are going to be pretty open but, you know, everybody’s going to be watching the tone and the rhetoric of his campaign for the next several weeks," Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy recently said. "Let’s put it this way: The arms are open today.”  

But Durbin said Sanders' actions won't affect the likelihood that the independent senator could chair a major committee if Democrats take back control of the Senate.   

[ Reid: 'Lay Off Bernie Sanders' ]  

Sanders is currently the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, and could be in line to lead the powerful committee , which drafts Congress' annual budget, in the next Congress. But Sanders becoming chairman is not a sure thing, given that three other Democrats technically outrank him on the committee.  

One of those senators, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said she expected Sanders to lead a "major committee."  

“There’s actually several possibilities,” Stabenow said. "It kind of just depends on what happens with other folks.”  

[ Next Act: What Bernie Sanders Will Do If He Loses ]  

"I think the chances are very good that Sen. Sanders would be chairman of an influential committee, almost certainly the Budget Committee," said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. "Wouldn’t he prefer to continue to have a constructive impact in advancing his policy objectives in the Congress rather than possibly contributing to electing Donald Trump the next president?”  

Niels Lesniewski contributed.

Contact Bowman at  bridgetbowman@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter  @bridgetbhc .

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