Sanders, Manchin, Sinema fight proxy war in the House

The fight between Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) over the shape and size of a massive spending and tax reform bill is playing out in proxy battles between their liberal and moderate allies in the House.

For months, Sanders and Manchin — along with Sinema — have been at opposite sides of the internal Democratic debate over the size of the prospective reconciliation package and what it should include. All three are now reaching out to their progressive and centrist allies, respectively, to bolster their negotiating positions.

Sanders initially floated a $6 trillion target for the reconciliation bill, a spending goal that eventually got whittled down to $3.5 trillion in the budget resolution that passed both the Senate and House.

More recently, Democrats say the top-line spending number for the reconciliation bill is likely to fall below $3.5 trillion because of opposition from Manchin and Sinema, who say it’s more than they are willing to support.

Manchin on Wednesday reiterated his opposition to spending what Sanders wants by releasing a statement saying “I can’t support $3.5 trillion more in spending when we have already spent $5.4 trillion since last March.”

“At some point, all of us, regardless of party, must ask the simple question — how much is enough?” he said.

Sanders, however, isn’t giving up easily. He told reporters this week that the reconciliation bill should spend $3.5 trillion “at a minimum.”

On Wednesday he immediately pushed back on Manchin’s argument by pointing out that Democrats could raise enough revenue from increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for new social spending.

“If Mr. Manchin is concerned about the deficit — I think we all are, national debt — I’m sure he understands that this bill is not going add one nickel to the deficit because it’s all going to be paid for by demanding the wealthy and large corporations starting to pay their fair share of taxes,” Sanders said Wednesday afternoon.

Sanders has reached out to progressive allies to bolster his leverage with his moderate Democratic colleagues.

Sanders held a conference call with House progressives on Tuesday to urge them to defeat the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which Manchin and Sinema spent months crafting.

“There was an agreement in terms of a dual track and that I’m not happy to see that agreement reneged on, and second of all that we’ll lose our leverage in passing a strong reconciliation bill here if they were to pass the infrastructure bill,” Sanders said Wednesday, recounting his conversation with House progressives.

Sanders and other progressive Democratic senators believe their House allies will hold firm and stop the bipartisan infrastructure package from passing this week.

“They will not pass it on Thursday. Enough of the House members understand that they would be gutting the Build Back Better agenda,” said a Democratic lawmaker familiar with the internal discussions.

The senator predicted that without a framework agreement between the White House, Manchin and Sinema on the top-line spending number for the reconciliation package, as many as two dozen progressives would not vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which Sinema and Manchin took the lead in negotiating earlier this year.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that progressives would stay unified in opposition to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill unless there’s a breakthrough with Senate moderates in the talks over the reconciliation package.

“We already put out our vision and we’re going to stick to that vision,” she said.

Manchin and Sinema have also reached out to colleagues to help improve their negotiating position with liberals.

They urged House moderates in August to pressure Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to schedule a quick vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package, even though Pelosi previously pledged to hold the bill until the larger reconciliation package containing President Biden’s human infrastructure agenda was ready to move.

That outreach paid off when Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), the leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and other House moderates pressured Pelosi last month to agree to a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package by Sept. 27. Pelosi postponed that vote until Thursday to give her whip team more time to round up votes.

Gottheimer has been in regular contact with Manchin and Sinema, coordinating messaging on pressing for a quick vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure deal negotiated by Sinema.

Gottheimer was spotted meeting in person with Sinema, his former House colleague, and speaks to Manchin and Sinema by phone frequently, sources say.

Sinema and Manchin have also reached out to House liberals in their efforts to smooth the path for the bipartisan infrastructure package and to shape the lower’s chamber’s reconciliation package.

Jayapal said she has been calling and texting with Sinema.

And another key progressive, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who served as national co-chair of Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, said he’s been in discussions with Manchin. 

Khanna told The Hill that he believes Manchin ultimately will support a human infrastructure spending package that satisfies the priorities of progressive Democrats. He raised doubt about whether Sinema could be counted on in the same way.

“I have a good relationship with Sen. Manchin and he comes through when the chips are down,” Khanna told The Hill. “The problem here is really with Sinema and her unwillingness to even offer a number or engage in good-faith negotiations.” 

Sinema appears to be having a significant influence on the conversation in the House over Sanders’s proposal to give Medicare the power to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

Sinema’s close friend and fellow centrist, Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), was one of three Democratic moderates who voted against and blocked a proposal in the Energy and Commerce Committee to authorize the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices.

Sanders was incensed by the setback in committee, issuing a statement declaring “there is no excuse for every Democrat not supporting it.”

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said there’s been a lot of communication between senators and House members ahead of Thursday’s scheduled vote on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

“There is some alignment and coordination all across the spectrum between senators and House members,” he said.

He predicted that Pelosi wouldn’t let the bill go forward with a vote unless she knows that enough progressives will support it.

“The only way the vote happens is if we have the votes to pass the bill,” he said. “We don’t put bills on the floor with the idea that we’re going to defeat them.”

Mike Lillis and Cristina Marcos contributed. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Dan Kildee Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Gottheimer Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Ro Khanna Scott Peters

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