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Here comes Bernie Sanders as HELP chair

Bernie Sanders sits in a committee hearing room with his hands clasped in front of him like he's praying

Sanders speaks during a COVID response hearing in June. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders is in line to take over as HELP Committee chairman now that Democrats have held the Senate — possibly in a fiery showdown with Rand Paul that could tie up the committee with fights for the next two years.

Why it matters: With Patty Murray's expected move to Appropriations, Sanders would have a new, larger platform to champion his progressive ideas — and potentially make Chuck Schumer's life miserable on issues like Medicare for All.

  • It's not guaranteed that Sanders would seek the HELP chairmanship since he's already the chair of the Budget Committee — but insiders expect him to make the move since HELP has more legislative and oversight power. Sanders' aides didn't respond to requests for comment.

Reality check: If Republicans manage to (barely) win the House, Sanders' big ideas like Medicare for All or sweeping new drug price reductions aren't going anywhere, even if they somehow made it out of the Senate.

  • But he can call hearings to draw attention to issues, and seek to call executives like pharmaceutical company CEOs to testify.

Between the lines: The committee could have some clashes if Paul takes the ranking member role.

  • Senate GOP aides said that with a GOP majority, Paul was more likely to chair the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. But with Republicans still in the minority, the aides say there is a chance he will take HELP to go up against Sanders.
  • If Paul still goes to HSGAC, then Bill Cassidy would take the top Republican HELP spot. Cassidy is known for bipartisan work with Democrats, but that could be more challenging with a strong progressive like Sanders.
  • Paul and Sanders actually do have some common ground in one area: allowing drug importation as a way to try to lower prices. Paul offered his support to a Sanders drug importation amendment at a HELP markup in June.

"Especially as chairman, I expect vigorous oversight of pharma for instance," Jim Manley, who was an aide to former HELP Committee chairman Ted Kennedy, said of Sanders.

  • "But my question would be whether he would be willing to reach compromise with his colleagues, or is he just going to stick with stuff that is never gonna get out of the Senate?"
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