Biden’s soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats

President Biden speaks to reporters after a Democratic Caucus meeting at the Capitol to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure plan on Friday, October 1, 2021.
Greg Nash

A growing number of Senate Democrats are getting impatient with President Biden’s kid-glove approach to negotiating with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Biden’s approach has involved a lot of facetime and personal attention, but little in the way of public concessions or discernible movement.

After talks on the scale and scope of the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation spending bill stalled in September, Democratic senators expressed hope that Biden’s personal involvement would yield a breakthrough.

Yet after several one-on-one meetings between the president, Manchin and Sinema, Democrats don’t seem any closer to agreeing on a framework than a month ago.

This is fueling frustration among senators who see this Congress as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass bold reforms as the House and possibly the Senate are in danger of flipping to Republicans in the 2022 midterm election.

“Both of them have left the president hanging,” grumbled one Democratic senator who requested anonymity to vent about the lack of progress since Biden reached out personally to Manchin and Sinema.

Biden met one-on-one with Sinema on the morning of Sept. 15 and then with Manchin later that day. He also held separate meetings with the two senators on Sept. 28.

Little news came out of any of the meetings other than a report that Sinema issued an ultimatum to Biden, warning him she wouldn’t back the reconciliation bill if the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill was delayed or failed in the House.

“If [Biden] had been able to walk away and say, ‘I have a commitment to $2 trillion from both [senators] and now we’re working on the details,’ it would have been like a sense of momentum. ‘The president’s magic of the Oval Office comes in once again.’ But instead it was like, ‘There’s no magic in the Oval Office right now,’” the senator who spoke to The Hill said of the meetings.

Some Democratic senators think Biden’s deference to Manchin and Sinema has only emboldened them to dig in their heels even more.

A second Democratic senator said Sinema crossed the line when she called out Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to delay a vote on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill as “inexcusable.”

Sinema also ruffled feathers by accusing Democratic leaders of making “conflicting promises that could not all be kept” when they pledged to move the bipartisan infrastructure package and the larger social investment reconciliation bill in tandem.

“It’s one thing to say I’m not satisfied, it’s another thing to criticize,” the second senator said.

The complaints leveled from Democrats in private aren’t new.

Democratic lawmakers vented frustration earlier this year over how long it took the White House to negotiate with moderate Senate Republicans on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

When talks collapsed between Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), some Democrats called for their leaders to scrap the two-track strategy of moving a bipartisan hard infrastructure bill separately from a bigger human infrastructure bill that would pass with only Democratic votes under the budget reconciliation process.

Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said Biden is working with Manchin and Sinema “in good faith” and implied there has been more progress in the talks than people outside the room know about.

“We do not discuss the president’s private interactions with senators — but he and the senators themselves are the only people in the room when they have one-on-one meetings. We are dealing with everyone in this process in good faith, and they are doing the same with us,” he said.

Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said Democratic senators need to have more patience.

“It’s a mistake to think about a meeting between a senator and the president as an international summit that merely confirms what’s already been negotiated,” he said. “For those kinds of things, we think if they walk away with nothing it represents a huge failure in diplomacy.”

“I don’t think Biden sees his relationship to Congress that way at all. He was a member of Congress so long and even as vice president so deeply engaged on negotiating on Capitol Hill that even as president he sees it as an ongoing relationship that is going to have its highs and lows, but it doesn’t need to produce anything until it needs to produce something,” he said. 

Smith argues it’s too soon to pass judgement on Biden’s tactics until time has run out for passing legislation. But Democratic senators worry that the longer it takes to pass the reconciliation package, the heavier a lift it becomes. 

Biden’s poll numbers have fallen, which adds to the worries in Democratic circles.

The rising frustration is further fueled by the lack of transparency in talks, which has left Democratic lawmakers in the dark about whether there’s been any progress.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading progressive, said on “The View” Wednesday that she “want folks on the other side to put on the table what they don’t want, what they want to cut.”

“Tell me what you want to cut and then we’ll figure out what the dollar [amount] is,” she said.

Manchin signed a memorandum of understanding with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in late July laying out $1.5 trillion as his top-line spending limit for a human infrastructure investment package and laying out a list of other demands, but many Democratic senators were completely unaware of his position until the memo was publicly reported on Sept. 30.

Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist and former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide, said Democratic senators are understandably frustrated.

“I think it’s a failure on the part of the Biden administration. You’re the president of the United States, you’ve got all the leverage in the world,” he said, pointing out that Biden’s agenda is broadly popular.

“We need this stuff,” he said of Biden’s proposals for hard infrastructure and social investment. “America needs it and [Manchin and Sinema] are playing politics with it.

“You have to lay this at the feet of Joe Biden,” he said. “When the president calls somebody into the Oval Office and can’t walk out with a deal, something’s wrong, because everybody has a price.

“What does Joe Manchin want? What would get him to move? What would Sinema need to move off square one? That’s out there, and Biden failed to get it,” he added. “Be Lyndon Johnson, don’t be Martin Van Buren. That’s what presidents do.”  

A Senate Democratic aide said that Democratic senators understand that Manchin and Sinema are wielding their leverage. But the aide said Democratic senators are running out of patience with Biden for giving them so much leash to run.

“This has been the Biden thing so far, his leadership style is to basically ask for nothing. There’s nothing,” the aide said.

The aide said senators understand where Manchin and Sinema are coming from.

“There’s less frustration with them than there is with Biden,” the aide said. “It’s his time to step up.”

Biden asked a group of centrist Democratic senators who met with him at the White House on Sept. 22 to come up with a top-line spending number they could support for the reconciliation bill.

Three weeks later, Democrats don’t appear any closer to an agreement on a top-line spending target.

Tags Build Back Better Chuck Schumer Elizabeth Warren Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Shelley Moore Capito

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