The intractable disagreements with Manchin and Sinema about the size and scope of the economic package have produced weeks of ugly deadlock among Democrats — and Manchin’s unexpectedly harsh denunciation of the party’s sweeping economic development and social safety net bill on Monday points to possibly more weeks of conflict, with no guarantee that he will ultimately support the plan and allow it to pass.
But while the continuing resistance from Manchin, and potentially Sinema, could still derail the key elements of Biden’s domestic agenda, many Democrats from across the party’s ideological spectrum say the process has revealed less a fundamental fissure between left and center than the challenge of coping with the unique and sometimes opaque resistance from two senators empowered with personal “veto power” by the Senateex’s 50-50 split.
“You’ve got a situation where, by and large,” all but two of the congressional Democrats now agree on how to proceed, says former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. “But you’ve also got a situation, because of the narrow margins … where every single one of those people have a veto. Two of them are using their veto power effectively to accomplish their agenda and to drive the entire agenda. I mean entire. There are others who have had some ability to do that as well … but it’s really two that are driving the agenda.”
The disagreements among Democrats haven’t been entirely confined to Manchin and Sinema. A broader range of House moderates quietly supported their push to reduce the cost of the package from the $3.5 trillion preferred by liberals, less because they opposed the new spending than because they believed the new taxes required to fund it would spur backlash.
And the resistance extended beyond the two senators to providing Medicare with expansive new authority to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices and especially for creating an expensive new dental benefit in the system. Many House moderates also share Manchin’s frustration over the tactical choice by House liberals to block consideration of a bipartisan infrastructure plan until he and Sinema explicitly endorse the broader economic plan.
But even with those differences, the struggle now largely pits just those two senators against a wide spectrum of other Democrats ready to move forward on both bills — and comfortable with a concentrated burst of new federal activity unmatched since the “Great Society” in the 1960s. While a substantial minority of congressional Democrats opposed Clinton’s budget plans and even the Affordable Care Act under Obama, on several of the issues that have stalemated Democrats this time — such as raising corporate and personal tax rates, establishing a new system to push utilities to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy and creating a new paid family leave program — Sinema or Manchin may be the only Democratic opponent in either chamber.
“The vast majority of everybody is on board, and we’ve got a guy from one of the Trump-iest states in the country (Manchin, of West Virginia), who is trying to represent his people, and we have a very idiosyncratic other senator (Sinema, of Arizona),” says Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “It’s just a lot to balance.”
Likewise, Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal PAC the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, says, “It feels a lot different now than it did during the early Obama administration days, when we had different parts of the party pulling in polar opposite directions. Right now, some are rowing more quickly but we are rowing in the same direction. Ninety-six percent of the Democratic Party was for most of the provisions that progressives were pushing for.”
Frustration in the ranks
This broader consensus doesn’t make it any easier for the White House and congressional Democratic leaders to overcome the resistance from Manchin or Sinema or assuage the frustration with their behavior from other Democrats. Even many House centrists privately insist that Manchin and Sinema are not speaking for them, and a wide array of Democrats believe that in the talks the two are channeling the demands of business lobbyists more than the preferences of any particular party faction or ideological grouping.
Intramural frustration with the duo’s sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting demands is likely to reach a new peak after Manchin’s latest salvo against the reconciliation bill on Monday possibly undermined the House leadership’s plans for a quick vote on the infrastructure package — the very thing he said he wanted.
One Democratic senator, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal caucus deliberations, says the fundamental challenge in this negotiation is that Manchin (if not necessarily Sinema) would probably prefer not to pass any reconciliation bill at all. It’s “nonsense,” the senator said, for Manchin to claim, as he did Monday, that no one “wants to compromise” with him given that the bill’s cost was cut in half largely to meet his objections.
But Manchin, the senator added, feels that he’s compromised plenty already because “he’d say ‘I’m at zero’ ” — meaning he would be content passing no reconciliation bill at all. “I believe him if he says, … ‘I’d rather go home to West Virginia and say I’m not passing anything,’ ” the senator added. In private or public, when it comes to the reconciliation bill, Manchin “never says anything positive about it. He doesn’t like it … but apparently he’s decided he doesn’t want to destroy the Biden presidency, which I’m grateful for.”
Amid the endemic struggles with Manchin and Sinema, it’s easy to lose sight of how many more Democrats dissented from the party’s core economic proposals the last two times it held unified control of government.
Democrats, for instance, controlled much bigger margins in both legislative chambers during Clinton’s first years in office, 1993-1994. Yet his cornerstone budget agenda passed by only a single vote in both the House and Senate — the latter after an expletive-filled phone call between Clinton and what proved to be the final vote, that of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (who denounced the package while voting for it). Ultimately, six Senate Democrats and 41 in the House voted against the plan.
Democrats failed so completely at reaching a consensus on Clinton’s universal health care plan that it never even reached a vote on either the House or Senate floor in 1994.
Obama achieved greater unity around his 2009 stimulus plan following the financial crash, but 34 House Democrats voted against his signature Affordable Care Act and 44 voted against the cap-and-trade plan he backed to combat global warming. All Senate Democrats did back the ACA. But facing a certain Republican filibuster, Senate Democrats never built enough internal consensus to even bring a climate bill to the floor.
Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a leader of House liberals, says that compared with even the Obama era, the party today is operating with a much broader consensus on forcefully using government programs to temper the rising economic inequality that markets have generated over the past half century.
“The party is more unified under a Biden presidency than it was ideologically under the Clinton or Obama presidencies,” Khanna told me. “The Clinton and Obama presidencies were still being fought under a [Ronald] Reagan frame of neoliberal economics, where there was a huge faith in markets … where the Biden presidency is premised on the view there has been a real failure with income inequality and economic opportunity, which a lot of Democrats share across the ideological spectrum, and a belief the state must play a big role in education and health care.”
While “there are differences in how exactly to structure that role or how big to go,” he notes, the Democratic caucus now is characterized by “a fundamental belief in the role of government and a fundamental rejection of the Reagan paradigm.”
Broad support for Biden’s agenda
Centrist Democrats might not frame the consensus in quite such sweeping terms. But there’s no question that under Biden, the party has come together around an array of new federal initiatives that significantly exceeds its ambitions under Obama, much less Clinton. Primarily because of the resistance from Manchin and Sinema (who were quietly supported by at least some House moderates), Biden last week unveiled a “framework” for the economic legislation that cut the total price tag in half, from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion. Yet even at that reduced level, the package roughly equals the combined net new spending from Obama’s stimulus plan and the Affordable Care Act, and it dwarfs the new public spending Clinton achieved — while also raising new revenue that would completely offset the tax cuts the GOP approved under then-President Donald Trump.
Sean McElwee, co-founder and executive director of Data for Progress, a firm that polls primarily for progressive organizations and candidates, says that in his surveys, a preponderant majority of Democratic voters — across ideological, racial or generational lines — support every key element of this agenda. (In a September survey, the highest-scoring components included those funding more long-term care for the elderly and people with disabilities, modernizing the electric grid, raising tax rates on the wealthy and corporations, and funding tuition-free community college; extending the Child Tax Credit drew less strong support than any other option tested.) McElwee even held an unusual recent joint news conference with Bennett and the centrist Third Way group to underscore the breadth of the party consensus behind the plan.
McElwee says that in his polling there is no divide between centrist and liberal Democrats on the key proposals, “as in no, period. Print it. … I really don’t think you can come in with a single provision of this bill that is controversial among any Democrat not named Sinema or Manchin, and certainly not to voters.”
Some issues did trigger somewhat broader disagreements among Democratic members of Congress, if not voters. While adding dental benefits to Medicare has been a top priority for liberals such as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a wider array of Democrats have questioned whether Washington can afford to create such an expensive new benefit while creating so many other programs. Many raised similar questions about the tuition-free community college plan. A smaller group of Democrats (including Sinema and a handful of House moderates) have also resisted initial proposals to provide Medicare authority to negotiate lower prescription drug prices (although many on Capitol Hill expect a compromise that will restore some version to the final bill).
Yet the best evidence is that only Manchin or Sinema has vetoed the inclusion of several ideas supported by every other Democrat in both chambers and the vast majority of Democratic voters.
“The stuff that is most at risk is stuff that is at the 99th percentile [in support] from our base,” says McElwee.
Ideas vetoed apparently solely because of opposition from one (though not the other) of the two senators include:
- Tax rates: While Sinema has rejected reversing any part of the Trump tax rate reductions for corporations and top earners, Democratic aides in both chambers tell me that no other member, including Manchin, has raised objections to at least some increase. “There is no one except Kyrsten Sinema who thinks substantively we shouldn’t reverse the Trump tax cuts and who doesn’t think politically it wouldn’t be a much better thing for us to do than what we are doing,” the Democratic senator said. “And that to me is the biggest disappointment of this whole thing.”
- Paid family leave: While some Democrats may have supported narrowing the plan providing 12 weeks of paid leave for medical or family needs, Manchin alone is blocking its inclusion in the final package, aides and advocates say. “I’m sure there are differing opinions about ways to structure a program,” but other than Manchin no one has said “paid leave is a red line and he or she is opposed,” says Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for All.
- Clean electricity: Manchin’s opposition forced Democrats to remove from the final plan a $150 billion program to nudge utilities toward transitioning from fossil fuels that contribute to global warming toward carbon-free sources of power. Democratic aides say no other senator had raised objections to the proposal and they had not expected any difficulty clearing the plan through the House until Manchin vetoed it.
Daschle, who served as the Democratic leader during the 2001-2002 session, when Democrats held just a one-seat majority for the final 20 months, says, “It is certainly not unheard-of and it isn’t unprecedented, but it is very unusual,” for a single senator to demand, as Manchin and Sinema have done on these issues, that their position prevail over the views of literally everyone else in the party, in both chambers.
“I used to say when I was leader … I had ‘x’ number of independent contractors,” Daschle says. “And I think that’s exactly what we’ve got now. You have two independent contractors who are not aligned with any particular caucus or organization or cause. They are truly independent and are capable with the numeric circumstances both caucuses are facing to have enormous, I would say outsized, influence, because of their ability to use that veto, or the threat of a veto.”
The example most often cited of a single member blocking the priorities of all other Democrats is former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who refused to vote for passage of the Affordable Care Act if it included a public option to compete with private insurance companies (some of which were headquartered in his home state). But even that isn’t really comparable, since White House and congressional aides at the time note that several other Democratic senators also objected; one count shortly before the public option was removed showed as few as 52 votes for it, one former aide told me.
Because opposition to higher tax rates and the clean electricity and paid leave programs is so isolated, many advocates believe these ideas can quickly be revived if and when Democrats next build even slightly bigger congressional majorities while also holding the White House — whether that’s after elections in 2022, or, more likely, 2024 or beyond.
“It’s notable that on nearly every single issue important to progressives if we didn’t enter the endzone we are only one or two yards away, and that means all these issues are live balls in the next election and future legislative fights,” says Green. “That’s why it feels different than the Obama days.”
But Phil Schiliro, the White House legislative affairs director for Obama, cautions that even if Democrats hold the House of Representatives and the White House and elect more senators somewhere down the road, given the states likely to elect those new senators, some of them might align with Manchin and Sinema.
“If there were 54 Democratic senators, it’s likely Sens. Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t be alone in raising issues,” he says. “That happens when Democrats win in red states. It’s a good problem because it gets Democrats closer to a strong governing majority, but it also increases caucus complications.”
Those long-term possibilities suddenly seemed less urgent around midday on Monday. Until Manchin stepped behind the lectern just after 2 p.m. Eastern time, many Democrats felt they had the luxury of strategizing about how to revive the proposals excised from the budget plan by the opposition from him and Sinema. After Manchin’s bitter broadside against the party’s liberal wing and the plan Biden unveiled, many Democrats are back to worrying about whether the conservative West Virginia senator really wants to pass any of his party’s agenda at all.