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Democratic centrists flex power on Biden legislation

Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinClose the avenues of foreign meddling Democrats see political winner in tax fight MSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' MORE (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and other centrist Democrats increasingly are in control of the fate of President BidenJoe BidenBiden eyes bigger US role in global vaccination efforts Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech Kemp: Pulling All-Star game out of Atlanta will hurt business owners of color MORE’s COVID-19 relief package — and perhaps broader pieces of his agenda.

In a Senate where both parties hold 50 seats, a single defection by a Democrat can sink legislation, giving the centrists significant influence.

Just this week, several Democratic moderates worked behind the scenes to limit eligibility requirements for individuals and couples who would receive $1,400 direct stimulus checks, lowering the threshold for the checks from $100,000 in individual income to $80,000.

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The House-passed COVID-19 relief bill allowed individuals earning up to $100,000 and couples earning up to $200,000 to receive some money from the stimulus checks. Under the changes demanded by the centrists, the Senate now cuts off payments for individuals earning more than $80,000 and couples earning more than $160,000.

Now there’s a push being led by Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperFive reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Appeals court agrees to pause lawsuit over Trump-era emissions rule Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan MORE (D-Del.) to keep weekly federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week, instead of the $400 a week favored by Biden and most Democrats.

“We’re thinking about offering” the amendment, Carper said. “We’ve been at $300 a week for months now.

“What the states have said is they don’t want to be jerked around, they want to have some predictability and certainty,” he added. “We’re working on something. We’ll see.”

It’s possible Carper will back off. He’s under under pressure from fellow Democrats to support Biden’s plan, and the amendment would cause considerable consternation in the Democratic caucus.

“This is the Biden position, this is the position of Democrats overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate. We saw again high jobless numbers today. I hope that senators will recognize, for example, there are still a lot of people out there hurting,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThe first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally A bold fix for US international taxation of corporations Democrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure MORE (D-Ore.).

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Some of the centrists themselves in the last 24 hours have suggested the $400 boost will stay in the package. Either way, the last-hour negotiations illustrate that the Senate’s Democratic centrists are a force to be reckoned with.

It only takes one Democratic defection to change the bill on the floor if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Democrats see opportunity in GOP feud with business Biden resists calls to give hard-hit states more vaccines than others MORE (R-Ky.) can keep his entire conference unified. Democrats and Republicans each control 50 seats.

Manchin and Sinema are the two centrist Democrats who have been most in the spotlight, but they are not alone.

Carper and Sens. Mark KellyMark KellyThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Democrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules Democratic county official joins race for Pennsylvania Senate seat MORE (D-Ariz.), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenLawmakers express horror at latest Capitol attack Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan Democrats wrestle over tax hikes for infrastructure MORE (D-N.H.), Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE (D-N.H.), Gary PetersGary PetersThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes Hillicon Valley: Intel heads to resume threats hearing scrapped under Trump | New small business coalition to urge action on antitrust policy | Amazon backs corporate tax hike to pay for infrastructure Senators call for update on investigations into SolarWinds, Microsoft hacks MORE (D-Mich.), Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowFive things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand electric vehicle charging tax credit Bottom line MORE (D-Mich.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate Lawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan MORE (D-Mont.) are also seen as part of a larger centrist group, along with Sen. Angus KingAngus KingGroups petition EPA to remove ethane and methane from list of compounds exempt from emissions limits Lack of cyber funds in Biden infrastructure plan raises eyebrows Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan MORE, an Independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats.

King on Thursday took credit for helping to lower the cutoff for direct payments and to guarantee that smaller localities get “an ironclad” share of funding for state and local governments. 

“I think it's getting close to where I'm comfortable with the package,” he said. 

Stabenow this week praised the accelerated phaseout as “a reasonable compromise.”

Both parties will be watching votes on the bill closely, particularly on the unemployment language.

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (Ohio), an influential Republican moderate, is circulating an amendment on unemployment benefits that would keep the federal boost at $300 a week through the end of July.

A vote on the measure would test Democratic unity.

Manchin and Shaheen are two Democratic centrists open to keeping weekly unemployment payments at $300 — the current benefit level that is due to expire March 14.

Manchin filed an amendment to the Senate budget resolution debated on Feb. 4 to cap weekly unemployment benefits at $300. It was co-sponsored by Sinema, Tester, Shaheen, Hassan and Kelly, as well as several Republicans.

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“I’ve been supportive of the $300, I want to continue the $300,” he said. “It’s been there. I want to make sure people know that they can rely on that, plan on that. But you know a lot of my caucus [supports] $400 so there’s a difference there.”

Shaheen said Thursday she is waiting to review several proposals to cap unemployment benefits at $300 a week.

“I haven’t seen the amendment, there are different versions of it. There are some I might support and others that I don’t,” she said.

Kelly says he’s also open to making bipartisan changes to the legislation.

“I’ll consider bipartisan amendments if they come up,” he said.

Any proposal to keep benefits at $300 a week instead of the $400 favored by Biden and Democratic congressional leaders will draw broad Republican support.

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“I think Republicans will support it, yes,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoBiden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate America's infrastructure: You get what you pay for MORE (R-W.Va.) of shrinking Biden’s proposed $400 per week unemployment boost. “We need at least one Democrat.”

McConnell’s strategy is to pick off one or two Democrats during votes on amendments to resize the package.

“Any amount we can reduce the size of this is a good thing for the  for the country. And I think there's at least a chance that one or two Democrats could join all of us and spend a little bit less,” he told Fox News Channel’s Martha McCallum.

Republicans are also hoping to convince one or two Democratic centrists to back an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTwo sheriff's deputies shot by gunman in Utah Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process MORE (R-Utah) that would limit federal bailout assistance only to state and local governments that have lost revenues during the pandemic.

Counterintuitively, some states have experienced an increase in revenue during the pandemic compared to 2019, according to an Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center analysis. These states include California, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, North Carolina, Vermont and Washington.

“I’d like to make sure funding goes to state and localities that actually had a reduction in revenues or unreimbursed COVID expenses,” Romney said. “If states had rising revenues and have already had reimbursement for their COVID expenses, I don’t see why we should be borrowing more money from China to send them more money.

He said “it would mean less money would go to states and localities.”

The Senate bill provides $350 billion to shore up state and local governments, a key piece of Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal.