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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 January 2007, 12:52 GMT
Socialist senator makes US history
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

The US Senate may not be ready for Bernard Sanders.

It's a collegial, even fusty place, where senators' hair turns white with decades of speeches and service.

Bernie Sanders, the incoming socialist senator from Vermont
Mr Sanders blasts the US health care system as driven by profit
Mr Sanders has the requisite white hair surrounding his bald patch, but his attitude remains unmistakeably New York despite his many years in Vermont.

"Anybody read your website?" he asks the BBC brusquely at the beginning of an interview ahead of taking his seat in the Senate.

Assured that millions do, he says: "OK, let's talk to them."

The blunt manner is not all that sets apart Mr Sanders, the newly-elected senator from Vermont known to all and sundry simply as "Bernie".

The Senate has had plain speakers before, but it has never before had a politician who calls himself a socialist - not even a "democratic socialist," as Mr Sanders specifies.

But he clearly thinks Washington needs at least one, as he praises the achievements of Europe's social-democratic parties in health care, housing, education and reduction of child poverty.

"The government should make sure people who work 40 hours a week do not live in poverty," he says, adding for good measure: "I disagree with Bush and other right-wing extremists about this."

Mr Sanders, himself labelled an extremist by his Republican foes, served in the House of Representatives for 16 years before being elected to the Senate in a landslide in November.

Ground-breaking state

His two-to-one victory over an independently wealthy businessman called Richard Tarrant would have been remarkable in most places, but perhaps not in iconoclastic Vermont.

Howard Dean
Vermont's Gov Howard Dean turned into a firebrand campaigner
The tiny New England state's population makes it barely larger than Glasgow, and slightly smaller than Frankfurt, Germany or Memphis, Tennessee.

But its irascible (if not numerous) voters produced the firebrand 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, a former state governor.

And Mr Sanders' own predecessor, Jim Jeffords, pulled the rug out from under George W Bush six years ago by defecting from the Republican party and thus robbing the president's party of control of the Senate.

Mr Jeffords became an independent who aligned himself with the Democrats, and the voters have replaced him with a man who is doing the same.

Not seeking socialists

They have clearly not been put off by his socialism, although the US has never had anything resembling a successful socialist party.

Our system is designed to make money, not to provide quality health care
Bernie Sanders

Mr Sanders waves away the question of why it has not.

"Books this thick have been written about that," he says, holding his thumb and index finger far apart, before launching another swipe at "the right-wing and corporate media" which "did a good job of equating democratic socialism with Stalinism, Maoism, Albania and North Korea".

But he does not claim the voters of Vermont sought out a socialist either.

"People looked at the record, and they said: 'We'd like more of what Bernie is doing.'"

As a congressman, "what he did" included leading groups of pensioners across the border into Canada to buy prescription drugs that are cheaper there than in the United States.

Few topics aggravate Mr Sanders more than the US health care system, which is largely private and relies on insurance companies to pay most bills.

"We spend three times as much per capita on health care as the UK, and 48 million Americans have no health insurance," he says.

"Our system is faulty and inefficient," he says, and the reason is clear to him: "It is designed to make money, not to provide quality health care."

Efforts to implement a national health care system have failed over the last 60 years because of "powerful special interests - insurance and pharmaceutical companies - determined to charge high prices".

Party of one

Mr Sanders is vague about what one senator out of 100 can do to change that when presidents as powerful as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton have all failed.

He hopes to entice some senators to join the Progressive Caucus that he founded when he came to Congress as a representative in 1991. (Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the only senator to have joined Mr Sanders' left-leaning group, was killed in a plane crash in 2002.)

But he is not planning to found his own progressive party, he adds.

"Working 70 hours a week is enough," he says. "I was elected to be a congressman. I worked hard at that. I was elected to be a senator, and I am going to work hard at that.

Starting a new party, he says, is "not my job. If others can do better, God bless them."

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