(Bloomberg) — The No. 2 Senate Democrat has a message for Bernie Sanders: the presidential candidate can get either a warm embrace or a cold shoulder when he returns to the Senate, depending on how quickly he backs Hillary Clinton.
“That’s a critical element for his positive return to the Senate,” Dick Durbin of Illinois told reporters Tuesday, hours before Clinton claimed the Democratic presidential nomination.
So far, Sanders is showing little sign of doing so. He told supporters in California late Tuesday he is continuing his campaign, scheduling a rally in Washington, D.C., ahead of its primary on June 14.
“We will continue to fight for every vote and every delegate we can get,” Sanders said.
The once-obscure senator from Vermont is expected to return to the chamber as one of its most visible members, with a broad national following. But how warmly he is embraced by his colleagues could depend on how he winds down his presidential bid.
In public, many top Democrats have said they are giving him time to make his decision. Vice President Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday, “We should be a little graceful and give him the opportunity to decide on his own” when to exit the Democratic presidential race. Sanders is scheduled to hold separate meetings Thursday with Minority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, who are both expected to discuss the future of the Democratic race.
But some Senate Democrats are suggesting they don’t have much patience left.
Bill Nelson of Florida said Tuesday that it’s time for Sanders to “stand down,” urging him to use his new influence to unify the party to defeat Republican Donald Trump. “I think he will come back here with elevated respect and appreciation by his fellow senators,” Nelson said.
Dianne Feinstein of California said Sanders needs to get on board quickly or he will be hurting the party’s chances in November. She also dismissed the idea that Sanders’ gambit might give him a bigger say in the platform.
“By ticking everybody off, I don’t think that’s the way to do it,” she said.
Durbin said that Sanders called him a few weeks ago, likely because the Vermont senator anticipates returning to the Senate at some point.
“I think he wants to be part of the Senate and its future. How he handles this from the convention forward to November is going to be a critical part of his image and his effectiveness,” Durbin said.
Durbin said Sanders, a longtime independent who caucused with Democrats, is poised to have a greater say in the party.
“It’s pretty remarkable what this man has accomplished. I mean, here he is, a back-bencher in the Senate, a socialist Democrat who managed to win millions of votes, break all records for presidential candidates in small contributions, bring out rallies of tens of thousands of people. It’s a different Bernie Sanders who will return,” Durbin said. “He has a national following and I think a lot of credibility for his effort.”
Sanders will return with a fundraising machine rivaled perhaps only by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Chuck Schumer of New York, each of whom have relationships with him and could play roles in unifying the party.
He also would be in line for a gavel next year should Democrats take back the Senate — either the Budget Committee, which he could use as a forum for his ideas, or potentially the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, previously led by liberal lions Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin and with jurisdiction over many of the issues he has been touting in the campaign.
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Up to now, Sanders has had limited influence on policy in the Senate, despite his decades in Congress, with the notable exception of a bipartisan veterans’ health overhaul in 2014.
Durbin said there are many areas where he can work within the party.
“Bernie’s agenda is very close to our party’s agenda and I think we should be working with him,” Durbin said. “Income inequality is an issue we all agree on. Making college more affordable, we all agree on that. Making sure we have proper regulation of Wall Street, we all agree. You know, there are differences between him and Hillary Clinton but the basic principles — climate change — these are things we all agree on as Democrats.”
Durbin said he thinks Sanders will come around because he has said he would do whatever he can to defeat Donald Trump, but added “all bets are off before the convention” and it’s up to Sanders to decide his strategy.
Sanders touched on the theme of unifying against Trump in speaking to supporters in California, but he also hinted that he may be looking for other concessions from Clinton and the Democratic Party. “We will not allow Donald Trump to become president of the United States,” he said. “But we understand that our mission is more than just defeating Trump; it is transforming our country.”
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