Manchin and Sinema finally feel the pressure from Democrats. Is it too late to save Biden's agenda?

Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema seem to have moved off their high horses

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 1, 2021 9:48AM (EDT)

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Thursday evening, as negotiations over President Biden's domestic agenda dragged on for hours on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin stood at the stern of his large yacht and spoke to some of his West Virginia constituents.

It would be easy to mock Manchin standing there addressing his people from on high, considering that he and his partner in obstruction Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, are both behaving like a couple of theatrical divas. In the last few days especially, both of them have been all over the place, ostentatiously declaring their independence and generally driving everyone nuts with their vague and inconsistent objections combined with constant, tiresome grandstanding. But if you can get past the bizarre spectacle and listen to what Manchin said, it's clear that all is not lost.

Yes, Manchin balked at expanding Medicare benefits with a bogus claim that the federal program is going broke. (It is not.) But, importantly, he did say that he believed in taxing the rich and that we should be negotiating for lower drug prices. That's a more concrete promise than we've seen from him in quite some time.

That little interaction came on the heels of the release earlier in the day of a memo from last summer, co-signed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (who added that he would try to talk Manchin out of it), that outlined Manchin's "topline" number for the bill: 1.5 trillion. If Manchin is negotiating in good faith, then that number cannot be written in stone, leaving at least some room for compromise. The publicizing of this proposal was obviously in response to a growing chorus of Democratic frustration that Manchin and Sinema were throwing their weight around and preening for the press without laying out their own counter-offers. After weeks of op-eds and press gaggles in which Manchin was saying that he wanted a "strategic pause" and appeared not to be interested in passing a bill at all, the release of this memo at least ended that charade. Manchin may still blow up the president's agenda, but he is apparently now negotiating specifics, which is hopeful.

There have been a gazillion pixels deployed on the question of what Kyrsten Sinema really wants and it's quite difficult to fathom. My personal opinion is that she is simply carving out a brand as an Arizona Maverick and believes that drawing attention to herself as someone who bucks the party will stand her in good stead back home. It's hard to imagine that destroying the Democratic agenda and ushering in another era of GOP dominance, likely led by Donald Trump, will endear her to her base voters but that seems to be her motivation. It certainly isn't any adherence to ideology or principle.

But it turns out that she too felt the pressure of the criticism coming from the party and so released a statement on Thursday insisting that she is negotiating with all the parties and has offered specifics, although she didn't say what those were.

What this all means is that the two bills — and thus Biden's agenda — still have a chance for passage.

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On Thursday night, the House worked with the White House and members of the Senate into the wee hours but were unable to come to an agreement on the reconciliation bill. So they missed the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill by the deadline agreed to by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appease a small handful of recalcitrant House "moderates." It was an arbitrary date, so missing it is insignificant in itself. They plan to continue to negotiate today and beyond if that's what it takes. This is monumentally important legislation and it makes no sense to cobble together a deal at 2 AM for no good reason.

Notably, the House progressives are holding together in their demand that the infrastructure bill will not pass unless the Senate also passes the rest of the Biden agenda in the larger reconciliation package. From the gasps in the media as Thursday night wore on, it seems that few believed they would do it. In fact, they apparently thought that they had done something catastrophic when, in reality, they were just being smart negotiators.

That headline is just wrong. The progressives were not alone in this and it isn't a big setback. The leadership didn't whip for votes on Thursday night and for good reason: The entire Democratic caucus minus a small handful in the House and two Senators are on board with this legislation. Even more importantly, the President of the United States is with the progressives as well.

Politico reported on Thursday that the White House is happy with the progressive strategy to hold fast to their terms in the hopes that it would put pressure on Manchin and Sinema to get with the program. It quotes Press Secretary Jen Psaki being downright complimentary in the press briefing this week, saying "[M]embers of the Progressive Caucus want to have an understanding of the path forward on the reconciliation package. They have stated that publicly. You know why? Because they think it's a historic progressive package that will make bold changes into addressing our climate crisis, into lowering costs for the American people, bringing more women back into the workplace."

In press appearances, progressives have likewise been on message, making very clear that they want to vote for the Biden agenda and it's the small rump of so-called moderates who are standing in the way. Politico characterized the relationship this way:

Ultimately, the White House wants to see the infrastructure bill passed when it is brought up. But the idea that it would be comfortable with an effort by a portion of its own party to delay and put into question one of the president's most important initiatives would have been unheard of in previous administrations. These, however, are not normal times. And this is hardly a normal legislative calendar.

And it is not your grandfather's Progressive Caucus either. They are a savvy group, leveraging their numbers to pass an ambitious agenda that's been proposed by a mainstream Democratic president. They are a force to be reckoned with.

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I don't know what will happen today. Pelosi says there will be a vote. It sounds as though Manchin and Sinema have moved off their high horses, at least for now, and are seriously engaged in the details. But there's nothing wrong with taking the time to hash this out and get an agreement and if it takes some more time it's worth it. What they all must recognize is that this is their shot to do something historically important and if they don't succeed they may not get another chance. The future of the country — and the planet — depend on it.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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