Pine Bluff, AR

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema Are the Thorns in Democrats’ Side

Marlon Weems

But there’s a way for Chuck Schumer and Kamala Harris to neutralize the two Democratic senators

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Senator Joe ManchinPhoto: Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Getty Images

I spent my teenage years in Pine Bluff, a sleepy town in south-central Arkansas. Across the street from our house was the Pine Bluff Commercial, the town’s newspaper. Behind the paper’s brick building was a large grassy piece of land that the newspaper owners allowed the neighborhood kids to use for sandlot sporting events.

We always had plenty of players to field two teams, but we never seemed to have enough equipment to go around. Not everyone had a baseball glove, and we didn’t always have a decent baseball for our games.

Fortunately for us, there was Corey, a kid who lived a few streets over. One summer, when I was 14 or 15, Corey seemed to have an unlimited amount of athletic equipment. He had an assortment of baseball bats — wooden and aluminum — along with several baseball gloves and balls. Whenever we saw Corey walking through the alley behind our house, a large duffel bag over his shoulder, we knew we had enough equipment to go around, and this way, we could pick sides and proceed with a few innings of baseball.

But there was a problem. Somewhere along the way, Corey realized all that equipment gave him enormous power over our games and whether we could play at all. If Corey’s team started to lose or if a close call didn’t go his way, he’d snatch up his bats, balls, and gloves and go home — leaving the rest of us standing there, unable to continue our game. The guy was an idiom playing out in real life.

As a result, we went out of our way to appease Corey. We knew if he didn’t get his way, he had the power to grind everything to a screeching halt. And even though we were just kids, we knew if we ever wanted to play a regular baseball game, we had to figure out some way to take Corey’s power away. When the Covid-19 relief bill passed the House and headed for the Senate, I couldn’t help but think of my situation with Corey back in the day.

The stakes for Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are certainly more consequential than a sandlot ball game, but at its most basic level, his dilemma is very similar—how to deal with a person who can shut everything down.

Schumer’s control of a 50–50 Senate rests on Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break ties as president of the Senate, which is meaningless unless he holds his caucus of 50 Democratic Senators together. And with Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema often veering to the right, that’s a very tall order.

Manchin and Sinema have gone out of their way to drive home the notion that all legislative roads go through them, whether their machinations coincide with President Biden’s agenda or not.

Sinema expressed early support for maintaining the filibuster, a key Schumer bargaining chip during power-sharing negotiations and an issue of importance in the passage of health care and voting rights reforms. Sinema contacted Republican leader Mitch McConnell during the process to assure him of her support for the filibuster, sabotaging Schumer’s negotiations.

Meanwhile, Manchin flexed his swing-vote muscle, publicly chastising the White House for having the audacity to give an interview to a West Virginia media outlet without first consulting him. He has been lukewarm on several components of the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, such as providing $1,400 stimulus checks. Like Sinema, he is against raising the minimum wage to $15 and abolishing the filibuster. To top things off, Manchin opposes President Biden’s Cabinet pick for the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden — ostensibly because of her mean tweets.

On its face, Manchin’s behavior seems understandable given West Virginia’s deeply conservative makeup. However, Biden’s Covid-19 relief bill is wildly popular with Democrats as well as Republicans. Even Jim Justice, the state’s Republican governor, gave his full-throated support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package — as have dozens of other Republican governors across the country.

Senator Sinema’s position, especially on the minimum wage, is also puzzling. With the election of Mark Kelly, Democrats hold both Arizona Senate seats. That, plus Biden’s win in the Electoral College, gives Sinema plenty of political space to accommodate Biden’s agenda. After all, in Arizona, the $15 minimum wage may be more popular than Sinema herself. You’d think this would appeal to a senator headed for what promises to be a competitive 2022 reelection campaign.

Why, then, is this happening? Take the House’s Covid-19 relief bill’s minimum wage provision, which passed in the wee hours of Saturday morning. A $15 wage hike is immensely popular throughout the country, even in ruby-red states like Florida, which passed a pay floor of $15 last November. So what are Democratic senators like Manchin and Sinema trying to achieve? It all boils down to one word: power.

Manchin and Sinema are the common denominators in blocking the elimination of the filibuster, the $15 minimum wage, and Neera Tanden’s OMB nomination. Their ability to torpedo legislation at will, coupled with their habit of crossing party lines, gives the two conservative senators the power to make or break the Biden agenda.

Still, all is not lost. Even though the Senate parliamentarian has kiboshed including the $15 minimum wage provision in the Covid-19 relief bill, Schumer still has options.

He could forget about the dissenting Democrats in his chamber, fire the parliamentarian, and appoint a new, friendlier congressional expert. That’s what Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott did in 2001 when he faced a similar situation. The Biden White House, however, has zero interest in this approach.

Or Schumer could go full Lyndon Baines Johnson and call Sinema and Manchin’s bluff on the $15 minimum wage. It’s a long shot, but, boy, would I love to see it. Here’s the scenario: Vice President Harris can use her authority as Senate president to overrule the parliamentarian. Once that happens neither Manchin nor Sinema could block the inclusion of the minimum wage provision in the bill — and it would take 60 votes to overrule Harris’ decision. In other words, if Vice President Harris overrules the parliamentarian, the only way Sinema or Manchin could block the minimum wage provision would be to sink the entire Covid-19 package — the political equivalent of self-immolation.

More realistically, Schumer can proceed with the Covid-19 relief package minus the $15 wage provision, potentially bringing the $15 minimum wage back later as a stand-alone bill — the approach the White House prefers. He can probably hold on to progressive support, giving Manchin and Sinema no excuse for failing to support the bill. Several progressives are already pushing for an amendment penalizing big companies that don’t pay a $15 minimum wage with a tax while offering small businesses incentives to meet the mark.

That these gymnastics are even necessary underscores the long-term issue for Democrats. They desperately need to win more Senate seats in the 2022 midterms in order to end the ability of just one or two senators to gum up the works. This brings me back to my childhood friend Corey.

My parents eventually took note of Corey’s power play, which they dealt with by buying new baseball bats and gloves for my brothers and me. We were happy to share our equipment with the other kids, thus neutralizing Corey’s influence over our sandlot ballgames.

Of course, the U.S. Senate isn’t sandlot baseball. And with Richard Burr, Rob Portman, and Pat Toomey reportedly retiring, Democrats will be focusing on grabbing a few more seats to bolster their Senate majority in hopes of dampening their reliance on Manchin and Sinema.

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Marlon Weems is a writer and storyteller focused on the intersection of politics, the economy, and racial inequality. He spent more than a decade on Wall Street, where he managed several automated trading businesses. He began his writing career as a capital markets subject-matter expert, providing insights on capital markets to global investment banking clients. Most days you can find him writing from his home on a small North Carolina island with his wife, two of his four children, and two cats.

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