Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives

The new strength of Democratic moderates in the Senate may temper just how aggressively Democratic leaders can push for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and other priorities, including climate change legislation.

The addition of two new Democratic moderates to the Senate — newly elected Sens. John Hickenlooper (Colo.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.) — combined with enhanced profiles for Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), has strengthened the centrist wing of the caucus.

The growing influence of party moderates has put one of Biden’s priorities, a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, in serious trouble, and complicates other plans on immigration and climate change.

It also raises questions about whether Democrats will stay unified on Biden’s proposed spending target, $1.9 trillion, which has sparked concerns that its size could lead to inflation.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hasn’t had to worry as much about protecting moderate colleagues after four of them lost reelection in 2018, shrinking the Democratic caucus to 47 seats.

Former Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) lost in a brutal midterm election for Democrats, which a few of them blamed in part on liberals going too far in the bitter fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Schumer, who is up for reelection himself in 2022, has to balance the desire of liberals such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for bold action with the political interests of colleagues up for reelection in swing states next year — including Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), and Kelly.

Democratic strategists predict he’ll do that by focusing on issues with the broadest consensus support within his conference, such as COVID-19 relief, and try to downplay more divisive questions.

Manchin, who says he opposes raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, has attracted the most attention, but he’s not the only Senate moderate that Schumer needs to watch.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said earlier this month that while he supports increasing the minimum wage, “there has to be some conversation about how it’s done and it can’t be done like that,” snapping his fingers.

Democratic moderates flexed their muscle last week when they voted for several Republican amendments during a marathon voting session to set up a special path to pass Biden’s coronavirus relief package with a simple majority next month.

Eight Democrats — Manchin, Sinema, Hickenlooper, Kelly, Tester, Hassan, Gary Peters (Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) — voted for an amendment to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving direct stimulus payments or other tax-based temporary financial assistance from the next COVID-19 rescue package. 

Seven moderate Democrats also voted for an amendment to prohibit the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing rules and guidance to ban hydraulic fracking in the United States.

Those “yes” votes included Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), Bennet, Hickenlooper, Manchin and Tester.

Jim Kessler, a former aide to Schumer and executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said the votes are examples of what Schumer will have to deal with. But he argued the centrists can actually help Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), casting them as key for the party to retain the House and Senate majorities.

“There will be places where the centrist wing will make necessary corrections that work with the interior of the country and I look at these centrist members as not just majority-makers for Schumer in the Senate and Pelosi in the House, but these are the folks that are going to be able to get legislation across the finish line,” said Kessler.

“You’ll see progressive enthusiasm tempered on occasion but there’s a lot of synergy on the broad goals,” he added.

Kessler said centrist Democrats could pose the biggest obstacle to Biden’s climate agenda, depending on how aggressive his White House and Democratic leaders push on the issue.

“I expect we’ll get a climate deal, but that’s going to take a lot of work. There are a lot of Democratic senators that are in extraction states,” he added.

Manchin and Tester voted for an amendment last week sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to reverse Biden’s action to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, an executive order he issued his first day in office.

Kelly, Manchin and Sinema voted for another Republican amendment to expand health savings accounts, which the 47 other members of the Democratic caucus opposed, while Manchin and Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, teamed up to support a GOP amendment making it a priority to take into custody illegal immigrants charged with crimes resulting in death or serious injury.

None of the votes had the effect of law since they were amendments to a budget resolution that won’t be signed by Biden, but they show the challenges Schumer will have in keeping his caucus unified.

“A majority built on members from red and purple states is certainly nothing new from Democrats. The key, particularly with a slim margin, will be striking a balance between allowing those members to demonstrate their independence with keeping the caucus unified on critical votes,” said Matt House, a Democratic strategist and former Schumer aide.

Biden himself acknowledged Friday that his proposal to boost the minimum wage to $15 will likely fall out of the COVID-19 relief package, which will need all 50 votes in the Senate Democratic Conference to pass.

“My guess is it will not be in it,” he told CBS News in an interview with Norah O’Donnell. “I don’t think it is going to survive.” 

Some Democratic strategists interpreted that concession as giving cover to Senate and House moderates.

“That’s probably why he did it,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist.

“I think Biden put the $15 in knowing it was a straw man,” he added. “That would show, OK, the progressives want it, I’m going to put it in. But I’m going to back that out and give some cover to the moderates, but now I have leverage with the moderates to come back and say, ‘I helped you, you got to help me on something else.’ ”

Tags Angus King Bernie Sanders Bill Nelson Bob Casey Brett Kavanaugh Charles Schumer Claire McCaskill Debbie Stabenow Elizabeth Warren Gary Peters Heidi Heitkamp Joe Biden Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin John Hickenlooper Jon Tester Maggie Hassan Mark Kelly Martin Heinrich Michael Bennet Nancy Pelosi Raphael Warnock Steve Daines
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