Biden tries new strategy with moderates as frustration grows

Greg Nash

President Biden this week took the rare step of calling out two Democratic moderates — Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — in a sign of growing frustration over stalled legislative priorities.

Congressional aides say Democratic lawmakers have been reaching out to the White House in hopes that Biden would be more actively involved in efforts to convince Manchin, a key swing vote, to get behind the Democratic agenda.

Manchin has expressed opposition to core elements of Biden’s legislative priorities such as raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, overhauling campaign finance and election law, enacting a House-passed bill to expand background checks, and raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. Sinema has also bucked her party at times, particularly on raising the minimum wage.

Biden on Tuesday took a new tack by singling out Manchin and Sinema as two significant obstacles to his agenda, though he did not name them directly.

Referring to himself in the third person, the president said: “Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House, and a tie in the Senate — with two members of the Senate who voted more with my Republican friends.”

The remark struck a tone that Democratic senators thought was appropriate, particularly since it put Manchin and Sinema on notice but in a way that didn’t imperil future cooperation, even though they in fact do not vote more with Republicans than Democrats.

“I think he’s angry but he keeps it under control. I think he knows the consequences of lashing out at Manchin and Sinema are just going to be counterproductive,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has served several stints as a Senate fellow.

“What you do in his situation, given his personality, is you express mild irritation in an oblique way. You get it on the record,” he said of Biden. “It’s interesting because it’s done as a kind of an observation rather than an accusation.” 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday pushed back against characterizations that Biden had criticized Manchin and Sinema, asserting he was only commenting on television pundits’ characterization of the political dynamic in Washington.

“The big tell here is, ‘I hear all the folks on TV saying.’ Now, as a former TV pundit myself, I can tell you that sometimes these conversations can be oversimplified. TV isn’t always made for complex conversations about policymaking,” Psaki said.

“So I don’t think he was intending to convey anything other than a little bit of commentary on TV punditry,” she added.

But by pointing to Manchin and Sinema as two major answers to pundits’ questions about why the White House isn’t racking up more accomplishments in the Democratic-controlled Congress, Biden was putting the spotlight on them.

Democratic aides say Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) are the two Democratic voices who most effectively can put pressure on Manchin and Sinema to get on board with the party’s goals.

Manchin has often expressed admiration for Biden and his pledge to restore some bipartisan cooperation in Washington. 

The president, who served 36 years in the Senate before becoming vice president in 2009, has not played a hands-on role with Congress on most of his priorities, although he has hosted several meetings with lawmakers at the White House to discuss issues like COVID-19 relief and infrastructure.

“At what point is Biden going to get in here, get his hands dirty, roll up his sleeves and say, ‘Enough is enough. I got elected with a mandate. Whether you’re running for reelection or not, it doesn’t matter, this is my agenda. You’re a member of this party, you better play or we’re not going to pass anything’?” said one Senate Democratic aide.

But the aide acknowledged that a direct confrontation could backfire. 

“The idea of strong-arming Joe Manchin right now I don’t think would get anyone anywhere,” the source said.

The aide said Manchin is media savvy and represents a state that former President Trump carried with 69 percent of the vote last year and is “prepared to step into a spotlight” and has an “incentive not to yield to pressure.”

Instead, Democratic senators and aides see a mix of subtle pressure and incentives as the best formula for coaxing Manchin and Sinema to back the party’s agenda.

Senate Democrats have been careful not to criticize their moderate colleagues, but at the same time they are growing impatient that legislative initiatives have gotten bogged down in Congress, despite Schumer’s vow that he would not let the Senate remain the “legislative graveyard” he said it was under Republican control in 2019 and 2020.

But one significant obstacle to avoiding that graveyard is the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. And Manchin and Sinema have emerged as the two most prominent Senate Democratic opponents to scrapping the rule.

Manchin firmly reiterated his opposition to changing the filibuster rule last week, even when it became clear that Republicans would block legislation to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“I’m not willing to destroy our government, no,” Manchin told reporters on whether he would reconsider his position after scolding Republicans for having “no excuse” for blocking the Jan. 6 panel.

Sinema also restated her support for the filibuster rule on Tuesday during a press conference in Tucson, Ariz., after touring migrant facilities with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Asked if she would “budge” on the filibuster, Sinema answered simply: “No.”

She rejected claims by some critics that by allowing Republicans to use the filibuster to block voting rights legislation, she is choosing to preserve the Senate’s traditions over democracy itself.

“I’ve long been a supporter of the filibuster because it is a tool that protects the democracy of our nation. Rather than allowing our country to ricochet wildly every two to four years back and forth between policies, the idea of the filibuster was created by those who came before us in the United States Senate to create comity and to encourage senators to find bipartisanship and work together,” she said while standing alongside Cornyn, who voted against the Jan. 6 probe.

Tags Centrists Charles Schumer Democratic agenda Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn Kyrsten Sinema moderates Senate Democrats
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video