The end of Manchema

By | November 2, 2021

Are they Sinemanch or Manchema? The debate can probably cease.

The centrist Democratic senators from Arizona and West Virginia, once united on shaving down the cost of a party-line social spending bill that started at $3.5 trillion, are now going their own way in the final stretch of negotiations on a linchpin of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Sure, they both dislike the House progressives’ decision to hold up their infrastructure bill — but when it comes to policy specifics, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are now in different places.

Manchin further upended the timetable for the now-$1.75 trillion social spending bill on Monday and is still fighting some benefit expansions included in the framework proposed by Biden’s White House. His objections cast some doubt on Democrats’ hopes to get the proposal through the Senate by Thanksgiving. Sinema, on the other hand, is quietly reassuring Democrats that she’s essentially on board with what Biden has laid out and cut a deal on prescription drugs Tuesday after being pilloried for rejecting earlier proposals.

“We talked,” Manchin said of his moderate colleague on Tuesday. Asked if they are in the same place, he replied: “No. She has her thoughts and we have ours. But we share with each other.”

The two have been lumped together for months because of their similarly centrist leanings, their public objections to more left-leaning elements of the social spending bill, their work on the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure package and their relatively frequent meetings with the president. Yet inside the Democratic caucus, Manchin and Sinema have showcased their divergent views on Biden’s climate and social policy measure for several weeks, with Manchin focused more on spending and Sinema focused on revenues.

Just a few days ago, Sinema sent her party scrambling with her opposition to raising tax rates on corporations and individuals. Still, she eventually agreed to a compromise that targeted high-income earners. And as of Tuesday afternoon, Sinema was on board with a deal on prescription drugs.

Fellow Democrats view her as accepting Biden’s framework, according to senators and aides, even if she hasn’t explicitly said so and is somewhat mysterious to many in her party. Manchin is another story.

After getting bombarded with text messages from House progressives over the weekend, according to a Democratic senator, Manchin once again reiterated Monday that his party shouldn’t count on his vote if the final product doesn’t meet his parameters.

Manchin “always negotiates until the end,” the senator added, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “And Sinema — when she’s close, she’s close. So I think we’re done with Sinema. She’s now in the mode where she feels good about this bill, both bills. She’ll try to execute, and she’ll be helpful. Whereas Joe is just a holdout, until he’s not.”

And Manchin is certainly still a holdout. He’s fighting to yank out a Medicare expansion for hearing aids from the social spending bill, arguing the program is already going insolvent so an addition makes no sense. Unlike Sinema, he also opposed the inclusion of paid leave and certain climate provisions.

Not to mention that the West Virginia Democrat is pointedly refusing to endorse the White House-backed framework, even calling a press conference to make his point.

“I don’t know where Kyrsten is. I haven’t heard much from her lately. But I think it’s a question of satisfying Joe about what’s in the bill, what’s in the pay-fors,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). He added that his impression is Sinema is more on board with her party’s plans: “The key word is impression, not knowledge.”

Democrats can do little more than rely on word-of-mouth and her participation in their caucus meetings to assume where Sinema stands. A second Senate Democrat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, likened the two senators to separate aircraft trying to land: “If you had two airports, she’s on approach and he’s still circling. But they’re both going to get there.”

Asked about the state of play on the bill Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) referred questions about Sinema’s position to the Arizonan herself. He reacted more strongly when prodded on Manchin’s skepticism of some of the proposal’s climate provisions.

“The issue ultimately is whether Sen. Manchin chooses to vote for legislation that will expand childcare, provide universal and free pre-K, build affordable housing, create millions of good pay jobs,” Sanders said. “He’s going to have to vote yes or he’s going to have to vote no.”

Sinema’s office declined to comment on Democrats’ deduction that she’s more comfortable with Biden’s spending proposal than Manchin. But she did align with Manchin’s complaints that the House had held their bipartisan bill “hostage” to force an agreement on the social and climate spending bill.

“The failure of the U.S. House to hold a vote on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is inexcusable, and deeply disappointing for communities across our country,” John LaBombard, Sinema’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “Denying Americans millions of good-paying jobs, safer roads, cleaner water, more reliable electricity, and better broadband only hurts everyday families.”

It’s not the first time Manchin’s been the last Democrat to sign on with the party’s agenda. When Biden’s coronavirus aid bill stalled out on the Senate floor this year, Sinema was left in the unusual position of getting Manchin to yes as he ruminated over whether the legislation would dissuade people from going back to work. In the end, Manchin cut a deal to trim some of that $1.9 trillion bill’s benefits, then voted for it. That same dynamic could soon play out again on social spending.

If it does, Sinema might find her whipping job easier this month than she did in March. For all of the party’s internal handwringing about Manchin, he seems far more interested in working on the climate- and safety net-focused bill than tanking it in the end. That will happen at his own speed: He said he’s not interested in rushing the bill to the floor, unlike some of his colleagues.

“We just work through it,” Manchin said Tuesday of his concerns about moving too quickly for a bill that hasn’t had hearings.

Democrats are hoping to vote on the social spending bill the week before Thanksgiving, when Congress leaves again. With no room for error in an evenly divided Senate, Democratic leaders will need to lock down Manchin and Sinema’s votes.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have to closely monitor both of them even though “Sinema has not been as outspoken as Joe.” Schumer’s top deputy, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, described both Manchin and Sinema as “enigmatic and mysterious.”

“I don’t know what’s going through either of their minds,” Durbin (D-Ill.) said.

In as few as two weeks, their leaders will have to know exactly where they stand. The Senate will engage in an unlimited “vote-a-rama,” during which a single Democratic defection could change major portions of the bill. That’s how the Covid-aid deadlock occurred, as Manchin got behind Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) push to trim boosted unemployment benefits.

Democrats are currently a long way from that sort of problem, however. Some of them want to see Sinema and Manchin cast their dies already, separately or together.

“This thing has dragged on for long enough and it’s got to get to the floor,” Sanders said. “If people want to vote against it, they have the right.”