Senate

Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema

Progressives say pressure on Democratic centrists over ending the filibuster needs to move beyond Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Manchin and Sinema have earned headlines - and barbs from the grassroots - by putting brakes on filibuster reform and, in Manchin's case, by opposing sweeping voting rights legislation.

But some on the left see the pair of liberal antagonists as giving cover to other moderates who are in the way, but who have not yet come to the surface with all the attention on the two most visible holdouts.

"It seems like there's definitely a handful of senators who are hiding behind Joe Manchin's skirts right now," said Sawyer Hackett, executive director of People First Future, a political action committee started by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. "We can't afford to just sit back and not turn up the pressure on them."

Potential targets to tighten the screws aren't hard to spot.

One could be Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who irritated progressives by hugging Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last year during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, former President Trump's pick to succeed liberal hero Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Feinstein was persuaded to step down as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee after the election. She's now seen as one of several Democrats who are opposed to significantly altering the filibuster, which progressives fear with all Republicans in a 50-50 Senate will be used to block meaningful legislation during President Biden's first term.

On Thursday, Feinstein befuddled and angered activists by saying she did not believe U.S. democracy was at risk, an out-of-sync statement in a party largely horrified by what it saw as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and continued mistruths about the election have taken hold on the right.

"If democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it. But I don't see it being in jeopardy right now," Feinstein told Forbes.

The remarks were widely seen as more evidence that the 87-year-old senator is out of touch with fellow Democrats.

"I'm not surprised that she doesn't think that democracy is at risk," said Joe Sanberg, an entrepreneur and progressive activist who considered a 2018 Senate challenge against Feinstein. "Beyond the elite gates of her community is a California where we have the highest rates of poverty, where voting rights are being suppressed in the most severe ways," he said.

"It's completely absurd," added Hackett, who mentioned the Capitol riot. "If she's not able to recognize that as a threat, I'm not sure that she should be in a position of trust defending our democracy."

Earlier this year, Manchin got a lot of attention for his opposition to including a $15 per hour federal minimum wage in the COVID-19 relief bill. Sinema also rejected the wage hike.

But what some Democrats might have missed is that eight Democrats in total voted against an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to ignore a Senate parliamentarian's ruling that the wage increase couldn't be included in the budget reconciliation package.

In addition to Manchin and Sinema, the $15 figure was opposed by Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Chris Coons (Del.), Tom Carper (Del.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and independent Sen. Angus King (Maine).

Senators in the party appear to recognize the scrutiny they are under from an activist base, and support for ending the filibuster is growing within the Senate Democratic caucus.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) backtracked after telling The Washington Post that she supported reforming instead of canceling the rule, later saying in a statement that she did support killing it off if necessary to pass voting rights legislation and as a means for "protecting democracy."

King similarly said he would "choose democracy" after previously expressing hesitation about completely ending the practice. 

Tester, who like Manchin represents a red state that twice voted for Trump, told MSNBC this week that he's "still for getting folks on both sides together and try and make the filibuster work," but seemed to suggest he would support changes too.

"At some point in time this country needs Congress to act and get things done," he said.

Two sources outside of the Senate who want to get rid of the filibuster said Tester's remarks were seen as a positive development.

As activists seek to pile on the pressure, they say they want Democrats beyond Manchin and Sinema to feel the heat.

"Everything about this is concerning," Sanberg said. "We in the United States Senate aren't beholden to our constituents. That's really how they're acting. It's like an unelected House of Lords."

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