(The Center Square) — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is being criticized for wielding his authority as the chairman of a powerful Senate committee to exert influence over a New Jersey labor dispute.

Sanders, a Democrat who chairs the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, scheduled a "field hearing" in New Brunswick to discuss a "severe hospital staffing crisis" at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, where approximately 1,700 nurses have been on strike for about three months in a dispute over pay and staffing levels.

"Nurses in New Jersey and all over America have been stretched to the breaking point as a result of unsafe and totally inadequate staffing levels that threaten the health of patients and cause massive burnout among health care workers," Sanders said in a statement. "That has got to change."

But the committee's ranking Republican is taking issue with next week's hearing, accusing Sanders of using the chairman's gavel to "manipulate federal labor proceedings and send a signal of political support for one side in an ongoing labor strike."

"The Senate HELP Committee should not be used to take sides in a private labor dispute, and especially not to support a favored political organization," Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-LA, wrote in the two-page letter. "Official actions like hearings should not become avenues for chairs to give unions, corporations, or any other groups the imprimatur of the Senate HELP Committee."

Cassidy said committee funds "should only be used for official legislative purposes" and not "campaigns" and accused Sanders of trying to "manipulate federal labor proceedings and send a signal of political support for one side in an ongoing labor strike."

He pointed out that Sanders has expressed support for the striking New Jersey nurses in press releases and statements but hasn't offered any evidence to back up allegations that the hospital is "engaged in unfair labor practices or was negotiating in bad faith."

"You have made similar statements through your official social media account, re-stating accusations made by the union that the hospital has engaged in unfair labor practices and calling on the hospital to 'meet these workers’ demands,'" Cassidy wrote.

He urged Sanders to cancel the meeting, saying the issue should be resolved by "neutral" agencies such as the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and National Labor Relations Board, both of which are considering complaints against the hospital.

"Political leaders interjecting themselves into these disputes — including through reiterating unsubstantiated allegations of illegal conduct that are before the agencies created to assess such allegations — corrupts the process that Congress carefully established," Cassidy wrote.

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