Manchin, Sanders set for clash over Biden spending package
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are hurtling toward a showdown over President Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending plan as they draw red lines around their legislative priorities.
The two veteran lawmakers are at opposite ends of the Senate Democratic Caucus, with no close working relationship and some high-profile public splits in their past.
But the White House and Democratic leaders will need to figure out a way to bring them together, and satisfy their contradictory demands, or suffer a massive defeat of the party’s top goals.
“They really do mirror each other in terms of representing different ends of the Democratic coalition. … They’re kind of avatars of like the two wings of the Democratic Party,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.
Asked about the relationship between the two, a former Manchin aide added: “There is no relationship. … They do not talk.”
Though the physical distance between Manchin and Sanders is quite small — they sit one desk away from each other on the Senate floor — they are near-polar opposites when it comes to politics and personality.
Manchin, who was first elected to the Senate in 2010, is the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus and an old-school backslapper known for his willingness to try to cut deals, cross party lines and befriend almost anyone.
Sanders, meanwhile, has cast himself as an antagonist of Washington’s establishment and cultivated an image, which he’s poked fun at, as a grump. But it’s made Sanders a loner, spending almost 15 years in the Senate further to the left than most of his Democratic colleagues and watching as they, and the party’s base, have moved more in his direction.
“Bernie truly is very, very much a socialist. He really is and he makes no bones about it. I know where he’s coming from. I know who he is. And I respect that,” Manchin said of his colleague during an event in West Virginia earlier this month.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and longtime aide who worked for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said one key to understanding Sanders is that “he draws lines in the sand, he stakes out positions. But, in the end, he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to stand up and block something for the sake of obstructionism.”
“He never blindsided the Democratic leadership,” Manley said of Sanders, whom he also called “a team player through and through.”
There have been plenty of skirmishes between Manchin and Sanders over the years.
Manchin supporters are quick to point back to a photo that Sanders’s wife, Jane Sanders, took at a conference in 2017 with Manchin’s then-primary opponent, Paula Jean Swearengin. Manchin, two years later, vowed that he would “absolutely not” support Sanders if he was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020.
During a caucus call late last year, they clashed over the size of a second round of coronavirus stimulus checks. They were also on opposite sides of the minimum wage fight earlier this year: Sanders spearheaded the push in the Senate for a $15 per hour minimum wage, while Manchin wanted $11 an hour adjusted to inflation.
More recently, Sanders warned during an MSNBC interview in April that he was “absolutely willing” to travel to West Virginia to make the case for progressive priorities. And he signaled frustration with the hyper-focus on his moderate colleagues two months later, saying he was “tired of talking about Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema.”
Under a GOP-controlled Senate, the two found themselves going in opposite directions almost as frequently as they’ve agreed. They voted together only 52 percent of the time in the 116th Congress, according to data from ProPublica.
But they’ve been on the same page more this year, voting together 86 percent of the time, likely a byproduct of Democrats being back in the majority.
Still, the tension over the $3.5 trillion spending package has been building for weeks after the two senators huddled for a little-noticed impromptu meeting around the Senate floor the day before the chamber passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that Manchin helped negotiate.
Sanders, according to Manchin, warned that he could kill the bill by marshaling House progressives. And he wanted to know if Manchin would support the $3.5 trillion spending package that would cement Sanders’s legislative legacy.
“I said, ‘Hell no, Bernie, I’m not voting for 3 1/2 trillion.’ He says … ‘Well, at least you’re honest with me,'” Manchin recounted at a West Virginia event recently, while adding that he was “willing to work with” Sanders.
Sanders is setting his own goalposts, arguing progressives have already compromised and that $3.5 trillion is the floor, not the ceiling, for how big Democrats should go.
“This bill, that $3.5 trillion, is already a major, major compromise,” Sanders told reporters, asked about Manchin’s push to go smaller. “At the very least this bill should contain $3.5 trillion.”
But in a 50-50 Senate, Biden and Democrats need support from both senators in order to avoid a massive legislative failure that activists warn would haunt the party in next year’s midterm elections.
“Failure to pass a bill, with so many popular items, would be shooting ourselves in the foot for the 2022 elections,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports the $3.5 trillion plan. “It’s just malpractice to not pass this bill.”
Manchin’s focus is the roughly $1 trillion bill that has already passed the Senate. He’s urging House Democrats to send it to Biden’s desk as soon as possible and no later than Sept. 27, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said it will come to the floor for a vote.
He’s also raised a slew of concerns about the Democratic-only package, which was greenlit by a budget resolution that Sanders helped spearhead and one that Manchin voted for.
In addition to questioning some of climate change goals and proposed revenue sources, as well as floating the idea of using income-based testing for the bill’s benefits, Manchin sparked progressive ire when he called for a “pause” on the legislation and reiterated his concerns about the $3.5 trillion price tag and the national debt. Axios reported that Manchin is only willing to go as high as $1.5 trillion.
Manchin’s office declined to comment on the Axios report, but the figure is in line with the $1 trillion to $2 trillion he suggested earlier this year.
Reducing the cost to Manchin’s preferred range would mean steep cuts to a spending package progressives view as crucial to making good on the party’s list of priorities. Though Democrats are still hashing out the legislative text, the measure is expected to touch on long-held goals including immigration reform, combating climate change, and expanding programs related to childcare, Medicare and education.
Progressives have fumed over the suggestions that they slow down the bill or scale it back from $3.5 trillion, after Sanders initially pitched $6 trillion. And they are warning they could sink Manchin’s $1 trillion bipartisan deal if major provisions are slashed from the bill.
“Nothing would give me more pleasure than to tank a billionaire, dark money, fossil fuel, Exxon lobbyist-drafted ‘energy’ infrastructure bill if they come after our child care and climate priorities,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said.
Sanders is now working to make the case for the Democratic-only package by visiting two red states, Iowa and Indiana, and holding a handful of townhalls in Vermont, where he talked up the significance of the bill.
He’s also backchanneling with House progressives, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a House aide told The Hill.
But congressional Democrats and the White House are optimistic they’ll get everyone on the same page — wrangling Manchin, Sanders and the other 48 members of their Senate caucus on board.
“There are some in my caucus that believe $3.5 trillion is too much, there are some in my caucus who believe it’s too little,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters during a conference call. “We’re going to all come together to get something big done.”