Senate Democrats dial down the Manchin tension

Senate Democrats are trying to turn down the temperature after days of high-profile drama and a delay of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House.

The House broke on Friday after days of intense, hours-long meetings without an agreement on a path forward on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill, which is supposed to carry many of Democrats’ long-held policy ambitions.

The standoff on Capitol Hill sparked a proxy war between “the Squad” and Senate moderates, with leadership stuck in the middle trying to figure out a way to satisfy them both. But Senate Democrats, including progressives in the caucus, are largely avoiding piling on against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

“We are in negotiations with all Democrats. Everyone is trying to row in the same direction,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), when asked if she was surprised or frustrated by Manchin’s $1.5 trillion top-line figure that’s $2 trillion short of what Biden and other Democrats have been pursuing.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who was spotted huddling with Manchin and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on the Senate floor this week, noted that they talked about “things that we want to get done, that we share.”

“There’s a lot of common ground,” she added. “There’s a lot of positive effort.”

The effort to stay positive comes after Manchin threw down a gauntlet on Thursday, publicly announcing his preference for a $1.5 trillion price tag for Democrats’ social spending bill. That’s significantly less than the $3.5 trillion Democrats greenlighted under a budget resolution earlier this year and the bill drafted by House committees.

“For them to get theirs, elect more liberals. … I’ve never been a liberal in any way, shape or form,” Manchin told reporters in a massive gaggle outside of the Capitol.

But the response from Senate Democrats was largely muted, with several spinning Manchin’s comments as a positive step forward after weeks of questions about what their moderate colleague was seeking.

“It’s certainly helpful to know Sen. Manchin’s priorities,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “What he’s signaling is that he wants to get a deal.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), asked if he viewed the $1.5 trillion as a hard stop for Manchin, said, “I would be surprised if that was a non-negotiable, just knowing Joe.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), in response to a question about Manchin’s red line on $1.5 trillion, instead pointed back to the senator’s comments from earlier this week to a small group of reporters where he pointed to changes to the GOP 2017 tax bill as a core starting point.

“He made it very clear that he wants to start reconciliation by rolling back the 2017 tax bill. … I want everybody to know that the Senate Finance Committee and I have spent three years getting ready for exactly this, and we’re ready to go right now,” Wyden said.

“And one other point on this, he and I continue to have constructive discussions with regard to energy issues and I think that’s helpful,” Wyden continued.

Part of the calculus for Democrats has been a belief that throwing rhetorical bombs at Manchin isn’t likely to move him. Even as Senate progressives have deep disagreements with Manchin on both the size and some of the substance of the $3.5 trillion spending plan, in a 50-50 Senate and with all Republicans voting, leadership will ultimately need his support in order to be successful.

“I think this is really a situation where I don’t think that all of us sort of banging on Joe is going to do it,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told reporters recently when asked to dish about the efforts by Senate Democrats to figure out what Manchin wants.

Asked about Manchin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) added during a CNN interview, “I like to look at the positives.”

“He is still negotiating. He’s still talking. He’s a little too focused on top-line numbers rather than programs. And let me say that I believe that progressives and moderates alike are committed to the ‘Build Back Better’ agenda,” she said.

It’s not just Senate Democrats, with key players in the House holding their punches.

After Manchin called a $3.5 trillion plan “fiscal insanity,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t bite on questions about her “Senate problem” and if she thought Manchin sounded “like someone who’s open to further negotiation.”

“Look, I think that Joe Manchin is a great member of Congress — of the Senate, we’re friends. We’re Italian Americans, we get along, Catholic, we have shared values. I have enormous respect for him. … So we have our common ground,” Pelosi told reporters.

Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), asked about Manchin saying $1.5 trillion was his top-line figure, added that “there’s no point in us negotiating against ourselves.”

“We have invited Sen. Manchin or anyone else who wants to, to put forward their vision,” she added.

Democrats are facing high stakes amid weeks of escalating infighting and big questions about how they get their competing factions onto the same page. The two-part infrastructure and spending package is at the heart of Biden’s legislative agenda, with many Democrats viewing it as too big to fail as they increasingly turn their attention to 2022.

Biden met with House Democrats on Friday at the Capitol and predicted that afterward the two pieces of legislation — the Senate-passed bipartisan bill and a social spending package — would eventually land on his desk.

“We’re gonna get this done,” Biden said as he departed the caucus meeting.”It doesn’t matter when. It doesn’t matter whether it’s six minutes, six days or six weeks. We’re gonna get it done.”

Senate Democrats echoed those remarks, predicting that a deal would come together — at some point.

Kaine said that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “is optimistic that we’re going to get this done, and I am too.”

“I just think this is the tough part. The last days of labor. It’s just the tough part of the negotiation,” Kaine added. “We want Biden to be successful. Biden being successful is going to be good for every last member of this caucus.”

Asked about the timing, Stabenow said, “You just don’t know. You really don’t know.”

“I think that time ends up in the details of writing,” she said. “We’re in a spot where people want to come together … and they’re talking specifics.”

Tags bipartisan infrastructure bill budget reconciliation package Chris Coons Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Debbie Stabenow Elizabeth Warren Joe Manchin Mazie Hirono Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Ron Wyden Tammy Baldwin Tim Kaine

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