Opinion

The perils of punishing Manchin and Sinema

Democrats can't afford to lose a single vote in the Senate

There's nothing like recriminations to advance a political party's governing agenda. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) voted last week against breaking the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights legislation and now Democrats — a lot of them, anyway — want their pound of flesh.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) isn't even technically a Democrat, but he has led the way, saying "there's a very good chance" that Manchin and Sinema will face primary challengers the next time they come up for election. He also applauded Arizona Democrats who on Saturday voted to censure Sinema for her filibuster vote. "I think what the Arizona Democrats did was exactly right," Sanders said Sunday

Progressives want more punishments for the duo. MSNBC's Dean Obeidallah over the weekend listed out a number of measures that Democrats should take, including steps to reject home-state judicial nominees favored by Manchin and Sinema, withdrawing party funding from their campaign efforts, and — again — encouraging primary challengers. 

President Biden "has a choice to make," Obeidallah wrote. "Stand with these two Democratic senators who have chosen to preserve the filibuster over democracy or stand with the communities that elected him."

That's a terrible idea.

Manchin and Sinema's defense of the filibuster is frustrating and historically misguided. Democrats have every right to be angry with them. But punishing the pair raises the odds that one or both of them will leave the party and start caucusing with Republicans — a move that would cost Democrats control of the Senate and all that goes along with that. Dems have control of the 50-50 chamber right now only by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would certainly welcome that development

Some progressives seem to think that's fine. They're voting like Republicans anyway, right? But chasing the two senators out of the party at this moment would be hugely costly to Democrats.

Among the repercussions: Republicans would be given a fresh tool to block the confirmation of presidential appointees. Thanks to a relatively recent carve-out from the filibuster, such appointees — the folks who do the day-to-day work of managing government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department — can pass through the Senate on a simple majority vote. The GOP already uses procedural rules to hinder Biden's nominees from taking office; just imagine what they'd do with a Senate majority? If Democrats lose control of the Senate, Biden's White House will be hobbled as well.

More consequentially, handing control of the Senate to Republicans would probably all but end the flow of Biden's judicial appointments. He got 42 nominees appointed to federal judgeships during his first year in office — the highest number since Ronald Reagan — thanks to the other exception to the filibuster. Forfeiting additional opportunities would be a terrible self-own for Democrats. So would giving up the possibility of filling up any Supreme Court vacancies in the near future. Fixing the high court will already be the work of generations for liberals; they shouldn't start on that task by digging the hole deeper. 

Manchin and Sinema are mostly reliable votes on those matters, by the way, even if they aren't on board for some of the big-ticket issues. Democrats can't afford to lose either one of them.

"I mean … Manchin's a pro-life, Hyde Amendment-supporting Democrat who's backed Republican Supreme Court nominees and strenuously opposed climate measures," Slate's Jordan Weissmann wrote Sunday on Twitter. "And even with all that, he's still better than a Republican in that seat." Exactly.

The progressive impulse to punish the dissenting senators is partly a bit of tantrum-throwing, an understandable outburst of anger over recognizing that the party's big hopes and dreams are going to be severely curtailed for the foreseeable future. It's also an extension of the misjudgment that has plagued many Democrats since the earliest days of the Biden presidency — a belief the party possessed enough leverage over Manchin and Sinema to force them to hop on the bandwagon, that if only the pair was pushed harder, they could be made to buckle to their colleagues. Clearly, that's not true. It probably never was.

The good news is that neither Manchin nor Sinema seem much inclined to leave the Democratic Party, even though they've been on the receiving end of so much left-of-center rage. They could change their minds, though. It shouldn't be risked.

Maybe someday Democrats will have a large enough majority that those two votes won't matter so much. Or maybe — probably more likely — the party will lose control of the Senate during the upcoming midterm elections. The ramifications of alienating the duo then wouldn't matter so much since Dems would be out of power anyway. For now, though, the party still has a chance to exercise a little bit of power. Democrats may have to hold their noses, but they don't really have any choice but to try to keep Manchin and Sinema on the team.

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