The Manchema Mess
Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are dictating the Democratic Party's agenda. Is it fair? No. Is there anything Democrats can do about it? Not really.
Manchema or Sinemanchin — take your pick. Either way, you know you’ve got problems when your name becomes fused together like some two-headed Hollywood hydra (it didn’t exactly work out well for Brangelina).
And for a lot of Democrats, dealing with Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — the two senators who hold the key to their ambitions — has become a monstrosity.
As the clock ticks down on a House vote to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which needs to be coupled with some sort of framework on the Democrats’ reconciliation social spending package in order for House progressives to sign off on infrastructure, Manchema seem to be piling on demand after demand, threatening to tank this make-or-break moment for their party.
They’ve been watering down, and in many cases gutting, proposals in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan that are not only pillars of the party’s agenda, but also hugely popular among the base — and voters in general, including some Republicans.
Democrats have no choice but to push their social spending package through the Senate via reconciliation to bypass the inevitable GOP filibuster, but the budgetary maneuver requires every single Democrat to be on board. That means Manchin and Sinema have outsize power — and aren’t shy about wielding it.
Manchin reportedly told his fellow senators that he could live without getting anything passed and, according to Mother Jones, even mused about leaving the Democratic Party altogether. Whether the threats were a sign of frustration, an attempt at leverage or pure theatrics, who really knows.
Theatrics aside, not all of Manchema’s demands have been unreasonable. Whittling down the cost of the social spending package was perhaps necessary to temper far-left fiscal excesses. (No, the package did not come down from an initial price tag of $6 trillion, as Sen. Bernie Sanders likes to remind everyone. That figure was always a pipedream.)
It has gone down significantly, though, from $3.5 trillion to what will likely be between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion, but it was always going to wind up in that ballpark. Manchin has been repeating that figure for months now, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been listening.
What is surprising, however, is how relentlessly Manchin and Sinema have been upping their demands at the 11th hour.
It may not be a flagrant abuse of power, but it’s coming close.
Manchema have been able to singlehandedly rewrite entire portions of the reconciliation package, defying not only their party, but also the tens of millions of people who voted for what the party promised.
Two people are effectively dictating policies that will touch the lives of every American.
Is it fair? No. But life often isn’t, especially in a 50-50 Senate.
Progressives Get Real
Progressives have reluctantly accepted this reality and, in many ways, are now the moderates, gritting their teeth as they see priority after priority slashed. While they, too, have amassed tremendous power by caucusing together in the House, most seem to have abandoned their previous zero-sum mentality and realized that something is indeed better than nothing.
Biden’s agenda — which includes not only long-sought investments to rebuild the country’s neglected infrastructure, but also to fight climate change and strengthen education, health care, housing, child care and elder care — is simply too big to fail.
That rationale is why I’ve consistently argued that both the infrastructure and social spending packages have a good chance of passing despite the daily fatalism in the media, which veers from declaring the talks dead one day, to back on track the next.
And you thought Donald Trump’s tweets gave you whiplash.
As for what happens tomorrow, this week or the next, I have no idea. I suspect even the main players don’t know.
There could be enough of a framework on reconciliation to satisfy progressives, who will vote for the bipartisan infrastructure package. Or they get fed up with Manchema’s last-minute waffling and scuttle the infrastructure vote for a second time.
That would be a huge blow, but not necessarily a fatal one. On Capitol Hill, deadlines are meant to be broken.
While missing this latest do-or-die deadline would certainly sap momentum and breed mistrust, the Democrats still have at least until Dec. 3, when they have to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling.
Even then, they may have until Christmas to pass their legislative agenda, which realistically was always going to be an end-of-year lift.
But for the first time since talks began, I’ve joined the chorus of skeptics after watching how much Manchema are testing everyone’s limits.
Pushing Their Luck?
Many social programs in the Build Back Better plan were always destined to be cut to appease fiscal hawks (and to be fair, Manchin and Sinema are hardly the only Democrats squeamish about spending trillions of dollars after passing $1.9 trillion in COVID relief).
But the willingness of Manchema to jettison the most popular programs feels like overreach.
Collectively, the popularity of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation has taken a hit, but its individual components still poll very well among voters of all political stripes.
Yet most programs won’t survive intact thanks to Manchema.
Paid parental leave? It’s gone from 12 weeks to an iffy four weeks that would be restricted to low-income workers.
Child tax credit? It’s gone from four years to one.
Two years of free community college? Gone.
Clean electricity program? Gone.
Child care, in-home aid and housing assistance? Slashed by hundreds of billions of dollars.
Expanded Medicare coverage to cover dental, hearing and vision? Obamacare health insurance subsidies? Medicaid in Republican-run states? Uncertain, at best.
But perhaps the mostly wildly popular — and overdue — proposal on the chopping block is giving Medicare the ability to negotiate (and thus lower) prescription drug prices.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders aptly told reporters on Oct. 26: “[Americans are] sick and tired of being ripped off by the pharmaceutical industry. They think it’s insane that in some cases they pay 10 times more for the same drug as people in other countries, while last year, the pharmaceutical industry made $50 billion in profit, and right now has 1,500 paid lobbyists here in Washington to make sure we don’t lower the cost of prescriptions drugs.”
Some of those lobbyists seem to have won over Manchin and Sinema, both of whom have financial ties to Big Pharma.
Several other Democrats are also blocking the proposal — among them Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy — although without Manchema as their shield, it’s questionable whether they’d take the blame for derailing prescription drug reform.
The Climate Component
Manchin has close ties to another powerful industry: coal — his political livelihood, both in terms of corporate backing and employing a significant chunk of his state.
That meant the climate change portion of Biden’s agenda was always in danger.
And indeed, Manchin has sunk the centerpiece of Biden’s plan: rewarding electrical utilities that switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and punishing those that don’t.
But the president is determined to salvage his signature climate initiative through a mix of federal regulations and tax incentives for businesses to switch to renewables.
In fact, Axios reported that Biden intends to spend more than $500 billion on climate change in the reconciliation package, which, if true, might make up for the loss of the electricity component.
While Manchin is the White House’s main obstacle to tackling climate change, he doesn’t always deserve the flak he gets from activists. Manchin has a point that the transition to clean energy looks great on paper, but in real life, it’s not easy to ask someone who’s been a coal miner for 40 years to quit and learn how to install solar panels for a living.
It’s a fair point but it begs the question: What about that miner’s children?
Catering to big coal — even though many West Virginians still rely on it — doesn’t ultimately serve Manchin’s state, the poorest in the nation, where people can expect to have the shortest life span in all of America.
While Manchin may not be taking the long view when it comes to climate change and his constituents, he is a true believer that government should not saddle future generations with debt — hence his insistence that any spending be fully paid for.
On that front, he’s been open to peeling back some of Donald Trump’s tax cuts by raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 25% and the tax rate on top earners from 37% to 39.6%, along with taxing capital gains.
It was a workable proposal, but then, the other side of the hydra reared its head: At the last minute, Sinema declared that she wanted nothing to do with raising taxes on corporations, capital gains or the wealthy.
Instead, she’s proposed a minimum tax on corporations, taxing stock buybacks and taxing billionaires’ assets, among other things, forcing Democrats to scramble to accommodate her demands.
The “billionaire tax” is an iteration of a plan Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been pushing for years, and Democrats are furiously trying to make it work because, well, they have no choice. But the plan leaves out everyone but the wealthiest sliver of Americans (basically it relies on 10 men), none of the details have been fleshed out, it could face court challenges, and it likely falls short in raising enough revenue to offset the cost of the reconciliation package.
Oh, and Manchin’s noncommittal on it — i.e., he doesn’t like it.
The tax debacle lays bare the difference between Manchin and Sinema.
Manchin at least spells out his red lines. He’s not a mystery.
Sinema is — and seems to relish it.
As Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told “Fox News Sunday”: “Sen. Manchin has been a straight shooter. You know exactly where he stands. I disagree with areas, but I respect that. My concern with Sen. Sinema is, why are the rules different for her? Why doesn't she go on shows like yours? Why doesn't she explain herself? If she's shifted her position on Trump tax cuts, explain it. I guess I’ve never seen a politician — including, frankly, the former President Trump — who just totally ducks answering questions of the media and constituents, and that's my frustration with her, she's not clear about what she believes.”
Ideologically, Sinema — a one-time Green Party activist who supported Ralph Nader for president — seems to be all over the place and, unlike Manchin, is an absent negotiator.
She claims to be negotiating directly with the White House, but by refusing to even talk to her colleagues, she’s not only engendered bad will that may hurt her if she ever needs help from anyone other Mitch McConnell, but she also risks becoming a caricature of obstruction and indecisiveness — not a maverick in the vein of fellow Arizonian John McCain.
After all, it’s never a good sign when you become the butt of an SNL skit (just ask Sarah Palin). And Cecily Strong’s recent portrayal of Sinema was, in many ways, spot on: “What do I want from this bill? I’ll never tell, because I didn’t come to Congress to make friends. So far, mission accomplished.”
(Aidy Bryant’s impersonation of Manchin and his opposition to child tax credits was equally brutal: “How are they going to get them to work in the mines? We need their tiny hands to dig.”)
Sinema has been great at saying what she’s against, but not so much what she supports — that is, up until now, when she threw everyone off guard with her unconventional tax scheme.
Perhaps this is the most egregious example of one lawmaker exercising an inordinate amount of power: Sinema is essentially trying to rewrite the tax code in “the ninth inning,” as Rep. Richard Neal put it.
To further pile onto to the mess, Manchin has signaled he’ll torpedo the effort to force banks to report more information to the IRS so the agency can collect hundreds of billions in unpaid taxes, depriving Democrats of yet another critical revenue source.
By letting corporations, the wealthy and Big Pharma off the financial hook, Manchema are opposing what polls consistently show a majority of voters want: the rich to pay their fair share.
Punchbowl News didn’t mince words: “Rich people should thank Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) especially.”
Political Winners and Losers
The reconciliation package is too often portrayed as social welfare for the poor funded by the rich, when in truth many of the programs are geared specifically toward working-class Americans — the very group Manchin and Sinema profess to be fighting for.
That’s why the demise of universal community college was particularly painful. Biden has pledged to increase Pell Grants and vocational programs to make up for the loss, but that will only go so far. Americans are being priced out of higher education, and community college is a pivotal gateway to good jobs.
Other provisions that the media (myself included) have framed as social safety net programs are, in fact, job generators.
Universal pre-K, child care, elder care and parental leave would all help unleash a suppressed segment of the workforce: women, who’ve born the brunt of caregiving during the pandemic.
These policies are smart, both economically and politically.
Others? Not so much, and sometimes you have to drop the political duds for the greater good.
That’s the un-PC reality: A program may be morally right but politically pointless — or, worse, counterproductive.
Take immigration. Beyond the fact that it won’t pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian to qualify under reconciliation rules, immigration consistently polls badly for Biden. It’s a needless distraction in the larger spending debate — and a convenient cudgel for Republicans.
Or take the child tax credit. A POLITCO/Morning Consul poll showed that the cash benefits didn’t really translate into a political boost for Democrats.
Democrats might reap the rewards of expanding Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage, but the plan probably won’t survive the Manchema test. So Democrats have floated the idea of an $800 annual voucher to use toward dental work.
It’s a clever workaround not only because it cuts the cost of an expensive program, but also because it yields immediate political dividends given that seniors — a key voting bloc — would see the benefits right away.
And here’s a controversial view: Why are Democrats so pressed to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income residents in Republican-led states? If voters didn’t punish Republicans for keeping Medicaid from them, they’re not going to reward Democrats for giving it to them. Voting — or choosing not to — has consequences.
It’s a cold calculation but a clear-eyed one: With limited resources, Democrats need to focus on what will get them re-elected.
Win now to legislate another day.
An Ugly Win Is Still a Win
Far-left protesters can follow Sinema into as many bathrooms as they want, but that’s not going to get her to change her stance (if anything, it will only harden it).
Progressives will have to beat her at the ballot box, and to do that, they have to acknowledge that Arizona is at best a purple state and put up a moderate candidate in the mold of a Mark Kelly, not a firebrand like AOC.
On the one hand, this is the healthy, albeit harsh, reality of governing.
On the other, the fact that so much hinges on the whims of one or two senators — in a chamber that’s already not representative of the country because it gives lopsided power to small, rural Republican states — is also a sign of just how broken the system is.
Perhaps at one point the system will finally snap, but for now, the filibuster isn’t going anywhere — nor are Manchin and Sinema.
Painfully aware of that, progressives on Capitol Hill have been practical and making huge concessions to Manchema — for now at least.
President Biden, too, is taking the practical route by cutting the duration of his social programs to keep costs down, instead of getting rid of most of them and focusing on a few programs over a longer period of time.
It makes sense: Give voters a taste of something they like and dare Republicans to take it away.
Enacting a little bit everything in the hopes that it sticks may not sound like much of a victory, but if Democrats manage to jump through all of Manchema’s loops, they will have passed a historic agenda that includes $1.9 trillion in COVID relief, $1.2 trillion in infrastructure spending and up to $2 trillion in social spending on everything from education to climate change.
All in under a year.
Democrats will also have shown that legislating, no matter how ugly, can work — and that politicians can take on seemingly intractable, long-term, problems.
So while Biden is sometimes derided as the compromiser in chief, if he closes this deal, he will have compromised his way to nearly $6 trillion in legislation — more than what FDR and LBJ enacted combined — that transforms the lives of Americans for decades to come.