Nightmare Scenario for Ryan if Dems Win Senate: Bernie Becomes Budget Chairman

A nightmare scenario looms for Paul Ryan if Hillary Clinton wins the White House: Bernie Sanders could become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Sanders has been the ranking member since 2015 for the committee, the entity responsible for drafting and monitoring Congress' annual budget plan. If the Democrats take the Senate this election cycle, chairing the group could provide the Vermont Senator with an important platform for his ideas, though the likelihood that Republicans will hold the House casts doubt on whether he might be able to enact much change.

House Speaker Ryan warned of such a possibility earlier this month while addressing a group of college Republicans in Madison, Wisconsin. "If we lose the Senate, do you know who becomes chair of the Senate Budget Committee? A guy named Bernie Sanders. You ever heard of him?" he said.

Sanders cited Ryan's comments in a fundraising blast, helping him to to raise nearly $2 million for several down-ballot candidates in two days. Democrats have been needling Ryan over his comments -- online progressive group MoveOn.org released a Halloween-themed video recently poking fun at the Speaker.

If Sanders becomes chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he is likely to focus on many of the same issues that have been at the center of his political career and were the focus of his presidential campaign -- wealth inequality, entitlement expansion and a fairer tax code.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is not the only senator positioned to assume a leadership role should the Democrats win a majority.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, currently ranking member of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, is positioned to lead it if the Dems take control. The same goes for Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and the Finance Committee and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is currently ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee and could chair it if Dems win the Senate. There is speculation she might instead angle to become chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, as Democratic Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski is retiring this year. If Murray makes the move (the other option is Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin) and Sanders opts to move to HELP -- another possibility -- it could create a domino effect of moving parts in committee leadership.

As ranking member of the budget committee, Sanders issued a paper attacking corporations for keeping profits abroad, calling the use of offshore havens "legalized tax fraud" and calling out a number of firms, including Boeing (BA) and Citigroup (C) as well as Verizon (VZ) General Electric (GE) , which he also went after on the campaign trail. He also repudiated Republican efforts to cut Social Security.

A January 2015 report from Sanders provides perhaps the best insight into what he would seek to do as committee chairman. In it, he outlined what he believes should be the committee's focus: jobs, infrastructure, incomes, inequality, retirement, education and trade.

"While we must continue to focus on the federal deficit, we must also be aware that there are other deficits in our society that have been causing horrendous pain for the vast majority of the American people," he wrote. "The federal budget is a reflection of our national priorities."

Sanders' allies in Congress would likely be many of the same as today: Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, Sen. Jeff Merkley from Oregon and Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota.

But he could find some unlikely associates as well. The self-described Democratic Socialist is Congress' longest-serving independent and has been known to break from liberal ranks. He voted in favor of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky's "Audit the Fed" bill and opposes the Export-Import Bank, which most Dems support.

Sanders' independent streak could be a headache for Hillary Clinton if she wins the presidency, said Allen Schick, public policy professor at the University of Maryland and budget expert. "They really have different agendas, and I don't think Sanders is going to see his role as being a team player or advancing the presidency," he said.

Sanders is already laying his plans to make sure Clinton keeps her progressive promises and nudging her further left.

To be sure, a potential Clinton-Sanders rift won't be the biggest obstacle to getting a progressive budget passed. It will instead be House Republicans, who are likely to retain their majority and won't be eager to pass a Sanders-led budget agenda.

Congress is not required to pass a budget each year, and in recent history, it largely hasn't. In 2015 it managed to do so for the first time in six years. In 2016, it didn't.

Sanders was critical of the 2015 deal, though he ultimately supported it. "This is not the budget I would have written," he said in a statement at the time. "It doesn't ask the most profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes and it increases Pentagon spending too much. But I will support it because it's much better than across-the-board budget cuts, increased premiums for Medicare, cuts to Social Security and the constant threat we won't pay our bills."

The best chances of passing any parts of a Clinton agenda through a Democratic Senate would be reconciliation, a mechanism that allows for changes in spending and revenues and cuts through legislative obstacles like the filibuster, said Schick. "That's a quite powerful mechanism controlled by the Budget Committee," he said.

Assuming Sanders wants to be chairman of the Senate Budget Committee (there has been speculation he might opt to head the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions should Sen. Patty Murray of Washington not want the job), he may be most effective in using the position as a megaphone. His presidential bid helped him catch the attention of millions of voters and the media, and a seat atop the Senate Budget Committee gives him a platform for his message.

"He has armies of believers who are not completely demobilized after the primaries," said Schick.

Regardless of what happens, it will be a wild ride.

"The year's going to be very unpredictable if Sanders is chairing the Budget Committee, Democrats control the Senate and Republicans hang onto the house," said Schick. "It makes a quite interesting year."

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