Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over $3.5T spending bill

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are ramping up their war of words as Democrats struggle to get past weeks of increasingly public infighting over their sweeping social spending plan.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, fired the latest salvo on Friday taking the fight over the plan to West Virginia. Sanders penned a Charleston Gazette-Mail op-ed, which will run in the newspaper Sunday, to tout the benefits that could be included under a $3.5 trillion bill, a top-line figure that Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose. 

“Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for this legislation. Yet, the political problem we face is that in a 50-50 Senate we need every Democratic senator to vote ‘yes,’ We now have only 48. Two Democratic senators remain in opposition, including Sen. Joe Manchin,” Sanders wrote.

Sanders added that Congress was at a “pivotal moment” and had a “historic opportunity to support the working families of West Virginia, Vermont and the entire country and create policy which works for all, not just the few.”

Manchin quickly fired back, accusing Sanders of trying to meddle in a state he isn’t from.

“This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state,” Manchin said.

He added that Sanders was trying to “throw more money on an already overheated economy” and that 52 senators— an apparent reference to himself, Sinema and the 50-member Senate GOP caucus — “have grave concerns about this approach.”

“To be clear, again, Congress should proceed with caution on any additional spending and I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs. No op-ed from a self-declared Independent socialist is going to change that,” Manchin said.

Sanders and Manchin, while both members of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) leadership team, do not have a close working or personal relationship, representing two opposite sides of both the Senate caucus and the party. 

Manchin helped negotiate a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate earlier this year. Sanders subsequently called for House progressives to tank the bill, which he voted for in the Senate, if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought it up without the sweeping social spending bill that Democrats are passing under budget rules known as reconciliation.

Sanders has downplayed that he, Manchin and Sinema need to get in a room together to try to work out their differences, recently telling a reporter who floated the idea that “this is not a movie.” 

But he has increasingly tried to ramp up public pressure on Manchin as progressives lose patience with their colleagues, who they view as out of step with most congressional Democrats.

After Manchin held a press conference last week to reiterate that he supports a $1.5 trillion plan, Sanders subsequently held two press conferences last week where he urged the West Virginia Democrat and Sinema to be more specific about what they can accept in the spending bill negotiations. 

Sanders also joined progressives in a press call this week to try to hammer home the message to the two moderates to negotiate. Both of the moderate senators, or their spokespeople, have stressed that they are in talks with the White House, though many of their colleagues remain in the dark about what they could, or couldn’t, support.

“The time for us to be negotiating with ourselves is over, and I think it is absolutely incumbent on the two senators … to start telling us what they want,” Sanders told reporters during the Tuesday call. 

Sanders hasn’t yet said what below $3.5 trillion he could support, characterizing the top-line figure as a significant compromise for progressives who wanted a $6 trillion bill.

But Democratic leadership, Biden and rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers acknowledge that the top line for the bill is going to have to come down. With thin majorities, Democrats can only afford to lose three members in the House and need total unity among the 50-member Senate Democratic caucus to pass the spending bill without GOP votes.

Manchin has said he could support a $1.5 trillion bill, and has floated a substantially narrower scope built off of changes to the 2017 GOP tax bill, as well as help for children and seniors.

But Sanders, in his Charleston Gazette-Mail op-ed, tried to make the case for the larger $3.5 trillion bill, which Democrats want to pay for in part by raising taxes on corporations and some high-income earners.

Sanders pointed to combating climate change, housing investments, expanding benefits for children, including extending a beefed up child tax credit, and providing universal pre-K and free community college as ideas that could all be included in the larger bill.

Manchin has said that he wants to put work requirements or income-based means testing on many of the benefits to try to target who qualifies for the aid, while also lowering the overall cost of the bill.

Sanders also touted allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and expanding Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental.

Though Manchin indicated that generally he supports allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, he’s sent warning shots over expanding it to include the new health services.

“I’ll say this about Medicare: We need to stabilize it. By 2026, you understand the trust fund is going to be insolvent. … I want to make sure we are stabilizing what we have before we start going down this expansion role,” Manchin said last month

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi reconciliation bill

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