Sanders First Senator to Break With Democrats Since Biden Took Office With Vote Against Tom Vilsack

Bernie Sanders opposed Tom Vilsack's nomination to resume his Obama-era role as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday. The Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential candidate joined six Republicans in voting against Vilsack's confirmation during a hearing at the Capitol, where he was ultimately sworn in with near unanimous support. The Senate confirmed Vilsack as USDA chief, for a second time, by a 92–7 margin.

Sanders was the only Democratic senator who did not cast a vote in favor of Vilsack's confirmation, alongside Republican congressmen Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. His vote marked the first time that a member of the Senate Democratic caucus opposed one of President Joe Biden's Cabinet nominees.

A progressive and dedicated environmental advocate, Sanders first assumed his senate seat in 2007, after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for the better part of two decades. In a statement issued by his office following Vilsack's confirmation hearing, which Newsweek obtained Tuesday afternoon, Sanders noted that his opposing vote did not reflect personal sentiments about the new Cabinet member, but rather concerns about his approach to policy.

"I have known Tom Vilsack for many years and look forward to working with him as our new Secretary of Agriculture," he said in the statement. "I opposed his confirmation today because at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry."

"I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that is not what Tom did when he last served in this job," the statement finished.

Bernie Sanders, Congress, Democrats
Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders voted against Tom Vilsack resuming his role as Agriculture Secretary on Tuesday. In the photograph above, Sanders departs the U.S. Capitol on February 23. Al Drago/Getty

After eight years as governor of Iowa, Vilsack previously led the USDA from 2009 until 2017, throughout the duration of former president Barack Obama's White House terms. While some major labor organizations, such as the National Farmers Union, endorsed Vilsack's return to the position under Biden's administration, others were wary of his ties to Big Agriculture.

When reports of Vilsack's agriculture secretary nomination surfaced in December, Mitch Jones, the policy director at Food and Water Watch, an environmental group, suggested that "Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants— some of whom he has gone to work for—while failing to fight for struggling family farmers at every turn."