In a speech to cheering supporters in Louisville, Sanders challenged McConnell in his home state to "have the guts" to debate those bills. Accusing McConnell of defending the interests of wealthy campaign donors, Sanders also challenged his Kentucky colleague to "listen to the pain" of his constituents struggling to get by on low-wage jobs.
By lashing out at McConnell, the Vermont senator took aim at the most powerful Republican in Congress and the second biggest target for national Democrats, behind President Donald Trump. The president easily carried Kentucky in 2016 and remains popular in the state.
But in Sanders' hard-hitting speech, Trump briefly took a back seat to the longtime Kentucky senator. "Sen. McConnell, it is time for you to end your obstruction," Sanders said. "It is time for the Senate to do its job and vote."
McConnell has attached himself to Trump in positioning himself for his 2020 reelection bid. The senator has vowed to bury the House Democrats' agenda and live up to the nickname that he's embraced — the "Grim Reaper."
Sanders touted Democratic measures to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, to $15 an hour, to enhance gun safety laws and to beef up protection for election systems from outside interference. He said efforts to deal with health care, criminal justice, immigration and the "rigged" tax system have been stymied in the Senate.
"Today I say to Sen. McConnell, if you want to vote against any of that legislation, that's fine," Sanders said. "You have the right to come back to Kentucky and tell the people why you voted the way you did. But you don't have the right to stop democracy in the United States Senate. You don't have the right to prevent debate and votes on the most important issues facing the working people of this country. Stop your cowardice. Have the guts to debate the issues."
He also challenged McConnell to allow a Senate debate on environmental legislation meant to curb climate change. Three weeks after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Sanders urged McConnell to "listen to what the American people want" and not allow the National Rifle Association "to dictate gun policy in this country."
Congress is on a summer recess, but McConnell has asked Senate committee chairmen to review possible gun bills for consideration when lawmakers return in September. McConnell has defended efforts to stymie Russian interference in U.S. elections, saying he helped steer more than $300 million to states to enhance voting systems before the 2018 election.
Some of Sanders' harshest criticism came while making a pitch for a federal minimum wage increase. He called on McConnell to "stop turning your back" on constituents struggling with low-wage jobs. "Today here in Louisville, I say to Sen. McConnell, stop worrying about your billionaire friends," Sanders said. "They're doing just fine. And start worrying about the working families of your state and around this country who are struggling to keep their heads above water."
Ahead of Sanders' visit to Kentucky, McConnell's office referred to a recent op-ed by the senator that denounced the agenda of progressives. The Republican leader referred to the Green New Deal — the sweeping Democratic proposal to combat climate change — and "Medicare for All" as "job-killing" and "dangerous" ideas.
"They would raise your taxes and give the federal government vast control over your life," he wrote. "That's why President Trump and I are fighting hard to stop them. As long as I'm Senate majority leader, these socialist schemes will never become law."
While McConnell's office didn't immediately weigh in on Sanders' speech Sunday, other Republicans came to the senator's defense. "Bernie Sanders is running on a platform which would devastate Kentucky: skyrocketing taxes on families and businesses, the elimination of its coal industry and throwing millions off their current health insurance plan," Republican National Committee spokesman Kevin Knoth said in a statement.
The tongue lashing from Sanders is part of a turbulent August congressional recess for McConnell. He was heckled at the start of the month at his home state's annual "Fancy Farm" political picnic and seemed stung by a nickname his detractors hung on him, "Moscow Mitch."
The day after the picnic, McConnell fractured his shoulder when he fell at his Louisville home, an injury that later required surgery. Protesters gathered outside his house to demand Senate action on stronger gun laws. The protest became so profanity-laced that Twitter temporarily shut down his account for posting video of them online.