Opinion

Joe Manchin vs. the Democrats

Will the West Virginia senator kill the Democratic agenda?

You govern with the Senate majority you have, not the Senate majority you want. Otherwise you don't govern at all — and then you fritter away your advantage with nothing to show for it.

That's the possibility facing Democrats this week after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced Sunday that he won't go along with his party's $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill — instead, he's interested in spending no more than $1.5 trillion on progressive priorities like federal support for universal preschool, paid family leave, child care, and climate change initiatives.

"So we have done an awful lot, and there's still an awful lot of people that need help but there are still 11 million jobs that aren't filled right now," Manchin told CNN. "Eight million people are still unemployed. Something's not matching up. Don't you think we ought to hit the pause and find out?"

Progressives are pushing back, naturally, pointing out the $3.5 trillion price tag is substantially lower than what they really wanted — and threatening to derail the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which still hasn't passed the House. "There is a real danger that this bill will lose, that the infrastructure bill will lose in the House," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told ABC News.

That outcome "would be a disaster for the American people," Sanders said — and it would be devastating for Democrats. After Democrats worked so hard to gain their fragile majority in both houses of Congress, it's doubtful voters would be much impressed if the party's agenda fell victim to an intra-party tug of war, all without Republicans having to lift a finger.

Three other things to consider about the struggle between progressive and moderate Democrats:

This is partly the filibuster's fault — but only partly. Because they haven't been able to get rid of the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, Democrats have had no choice but to wrap all their priorities into the one package that can pass with a mere majority — a reconciliation bill. Lumping all those proposals together has the effect of obscuring any single initiative and makes it easier to focus on the bottom line: $3.5 trillion. Manchin might be under more pressure if he had to explain why he was killing a standalone Medicare bill, or a family leave bill, or climate change bill, each of them with smaller price tags. Under current circumstances, it's easier for him to frame his opposition as good old-fashioned fiscal conservatism.

Then again, even if the filibuster had been erased from Senate rules, Manchin's vote would still be needed for Democrats to pass any one of those individual bills. They have just 50 votes — plus the vice president's tie-breaker — in a 100-vote Senate. Manchin is, for all intents and purposes, the 50th vote. Progressive Democrats would still have to convince him to get on board with their priorities. So far, they haven't. For now, at least, there's no escaping Manchin.

Manchin isn't being entirely honest. During his CNN interview on Sunday, the West Virginian framed the reconciliation bill as an extension of Democrats' efforts to help the country recover from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We've already put out $5.4 trillion and we've tried to help Americans in every way we possibly can and a lot of the help that we've put out there is still there and it's going to run clear until next year, 2022, so what's the urgency?" he asked.

As a longtime politician, Manchin surely understands the urgency involved: Democrats simply don't know how long their control of Congress might last — the average age of a senator is roughly 63 years old, after all. But despite his framing, the reconciliation bill isn't about dealing with the COVID emergency, but about laying down a long-term foundation for an expanded and strengthened social safety net for Americans. If Manchin doesn't like that, he should just say so.

The left still has some power in all of this. Back in July, I criticized progressives who were threatening to vote against the $3.5 trillion bill because it was a substantial comedown from their original $6 trillion proposal. My point then was that they should accept the "half a loaf" compromise for now and work to get more later, rather than walk away from the table with nothing. It's tougher to suggest that pols like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) should settle for as little as a sixth of a loaf. Manchin, after all, needs their support to get the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed. If ever there was a time to use their leverage, this is it.

But that effort should be undertaken with some caution: There is a more-than-even chance that Republicans will take back the majority in one or both houses of Congress in 2022. That dire scenario is more likely if progressives and moderates can't find a way together to get to "yes" on reconciliation and the infrastructure bills. Democrats don't know when they'll have this kind of power again. They can't afford to let this opportunity go.

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