Blumenthal part of new restive left

Based on his recent meeting with The Day's editorial board, count Sen. Richard Blumenthal among a growing number of liberal lawmakers who believe that the old Bill Clinton formula, which called upon Democrats to move toward the center on economic and fiscal policy, no longer applies. Income disparities have become so great, the plight of many low-income and young people so severe, it is time to "get back to a good, progressive, populist message," Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa told the New York Times.

Blumenthal appears to agree.

"Why are we always beginning with the Republican proposal as our compromise?" said the senator, summing up what he saw as the flawed approach to seeking common ground with Republicans. "Shouldn't we be fighting for our position and ending up with something better than the Republican proposal?"

Other New Englanders in this new camp include Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Connecticut's junior senator, Chris Murphy.

The new progressive approach was on display when Sens. Blumenthal and Murphy joined 16 other Democrats in voting against a bipartisan compromise on federal student loans. The measure holds down interest rates on the loans for the next couple of years, but could allow them to rise dramatically in future years. The bill won easy approval in the House. Republicans leaders hailed it as a budgetary victory.

Blumenthal said Democrats and the White House caved.

"I really thought that we should stand and fight this thing because there is a premise at the heart of this bill that is so wrong, which is that we should make a profit off the backs of students - $51 billion this year … the federal government will profit from students. So when they talk about the revenue neutrality of this bill, it just means … the federal government makes 700 million more dollars at the expense of students," Blumenthal said.

He backed an alternative student loan proposed by Sen. Warren that would have provided students the same interest rate for a year as the Federal Reserve offers banks - 0.75 percent.

"What happened to the idea that we invest in students? That's the premise of the student loan program, that we should enable them to go to school, that we shouldn't be profiting off them," Blumenthal said.

He is also pushing for a massive student loan forgiveness program, including a community service provisions in return for debt relief.

"From the standpoint of economic growth and job creation, this group is going to be the economic drivers. They are the ones who have to buy homes, start businesses, build families. If they come of out of school deeply in debt … how can they do any of that?" he asked.

Debt forgiveness would stand no chance of winning approval in the Republican House. Blumenthal said he doesn't care.

"The great challenge of these next two years will be to make the American people understand what that extreme right, Tea Party view of the world means to them in their lives," Blumenthal said during our meeting. "In the House they are on a kamikaze mission against government, they want government to fail, they want it to be reduced small enough to - how do they say it? - to be drowned in a bath tub."

After listening to Blumenthal and reading of the restive progressive Democrats in the Senate, and considering the hard-right fiscal Republican class of 2010 that holds such sway in the House, I tried to imagine how a compromise on fiscal and tax policy might take shape. My imagination is not that good.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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