Moderate Democrats Flex Their Power In The Senate, Making Progressives Impatient

Jun 11, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021 7:39 am

Democrats who hoped that narrow control in Washington, D.C., would lead to a rush of votes to approve new progressive policies are facing a major roadblock — moderates in their own party.

Moderate Senate Democrats from Republican-leaning states and swing states are flexing the power that comes along with a 50-50 Senate, where every vote has the potential to make or break a bill.

Members of the small-but-mighty group worked this week with a handful of Republicans to reach an agreement on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure framework. Earlier this year, they won concessions in President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. And they stand as gatekeepers on the path for other major progressive priorities like voting rights legislation, immigration and possibly even infrastructure.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has become one of the leading moderates willing to work outside traditional leadership channels on issues such as border security and infrastructure. On the latter issue, she launched her own talks with Republicans, led by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, to form a 10-senator working group — even as top Senate Democrats began work on their own, entirely partisan, legislation.

The negotiation is the latest sign of the enormous influence a few senators can have in a closely divided Senate.

Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin are the two most prominent Democrats pushing the Senate to buck partisan plans and pursue bipartisan legislation on virtually every front. Manchin in particular has repeatedly said he will not agree to upend Senate rules to make it easier for Democrats to act on their own.

"I'm not ready to destroy our government," Manchin told reporters in the Capitol last month. "I think we'll come together. You have to have faith there's 10 good people."

Comments like those have drawn fire from progressive lawmakers in the House and activist groups who say Democrats were elected to lead the House, Senate and the White House and have responsibility to pass legislation that reflects the policies they promised voters in 2020.

Who are the moderates?

There is a small group of moderate Senate Democrats who have largely avoided choosing a side when it comes to eliminating the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. But others object to partisan legislation on a case-by-case basis.

Swing-state freshman Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. — both up for reelection next year — are among the few who have refused a position on the filibuster in recent months.

Others, like Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Chris Coons, D-Del., Tom Carper, D-Del., and Angus King, I-Maine, all voted against instituting a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage. Others have quietly avoided commitments on legislation such as the For the People Voting Rights Act and the finer details of the negotiations on an infrastructure package.

Manchin and Sinema have given other Democrats who may share their views consistent political cover to dodge questions and refuse firm commitments on legislation. The razor-thin majority in the Senate means that as long as one Democrat is willing to publicly block a bill, nobody else has to join them unless they want to.

Progressive backlash

Progressive Democrats in the House, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both of New York, have been particularly frustrated watching fellow Democrats stand in the way of Biden's agenda.

They argue that Democrats need to respond to Republicans with the tactics and force that GOP senators used to block legislation under former President Barack Obama. Many point to comments Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made last month vowing to repeat that obstruction to block Biden's policies.

"One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," McConnell said at a press event in his home state of Kentucky. "We're confronted with severe challenges from a new administration, and a narrow majority of Democrats in the House and a 50-50 Senate to turn America into a socialist country, and that's 100% of my focus."

Bowman went so far as to call Manchin "the new Mitch McConnell" in a recent interview on CNN.

Most Senate Democrats say they aren't surprised that Manchin, in particular, is standing his ground. Coons, who is a close Biden ally, said Manchin has always been consistent in his approach.

"Joe Manchin, since he got here — and we were sworn in on the same day — has been the most centrist Democrat of our caucus and has insisted on bipartisanship as much as is possible," Coons said. "That is something that has been consistent about Joe for a decade."

Many Senate Democrats say privately that attempts to pressure Manchin and Sinema could be counterproductive. The two have publicly embraced their positions and haven't shied away from repeatedly defending them.

That's part of why Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is forcing votes in June to prove that Republicans will not go along with major parts of Biden's agenda. The Senate is set to take up everything from LGBTQ equality to paycheck fairness and voting rights.

Schumer told Democrats of the plan in a letter last month. He said bipartisanship has had limited success so far this year and Democrats have "seen the limits of bipartisanship and the resurgence of Republican obstructionism."

"Senate Democrats are doing everything we can to move legislation in a bipartisan way when and where the opportunity exists," Schumer wrote. "But we will not wait for months and months to pass meaningful legislation that delivers real results for the American people."

That tactic could also force the quiet objectors within the Democratic Party to come forward and join Manchin and Sinema in opposition to the progressive left.

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A bipartisan group in the Senate says they've reached a deal on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $579 billion in new spending. Party leaders have yet to weigh in on the plan, but the deal is the latest sign of moderate Democrats flexing their power in a closely divided Washington. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following this story and joins us now. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

MCCAMMON: So, first of all, what do we know about what's in this new deal on infrastructure?

SNELL: Well, I guess to start with, there were 10 senators, five from each party, who worked on this. And they were led by Republican Mitt Romney of Utah and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat. You know, they say that they have an agreement on a framework for an eight-year spending plan that would not include any tax hikes. But that's basically all we know except for the top-line figures. You know, it is certainly progress from where things stood earlier in the week where we saw talks between the White House and Republican Shelley Moore Capito completely fall apart. But we really don't know if party leaders in the Senate will take it or like it or if enough senators will get behind the plan. We do know the White House was briefed last night. But deputy press secretary Andrew Bates put out a statement saying there are still questions about policy and how to pay for it. So big questions there.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. And aside from Sinema, who you mentioned, we've heard a lot about West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, of course, as the main voice for moderates. Tell us about who else is a potential roadblock for Biden's plans.

SNELL: You know, it depends on the issue, and that's kind of part of why it's hard to navigate for party leaders and for Biden. You know, the senators who oppose some gun control measures aren't exactly the same ones who might oppose, say, raising taxes for infrastructure spending. When it comes to the filibuster, which is another major question here, so far, we've really only heard from Manchin and Sinema saying they absolutely will not do away with the filibuster. Others like Arizona freshman Mark Kelly and Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire have avoided taking a firm position. Sometimes they say they're open to some nebulous reforms. You know, if you look at the states that these senators represent, they're kind of swing states or states that have generally voted for Republicans for statewide offices. And, you know, they answer to voters who are just not monolithic. And they are having to take out positions that are, you know, very different from what some of the progressives in their party would like to see and would like to say Democrats all represent.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Speaking of the progressives, there's a lot of pressure from progressive Democrats in Congress to follow through on Biden's promises in this regard. How are other Dems feeling about this?

SNELL: You know, some Democrats tell me they think that it's counterproductive to try to force the hand of particularly Manchin. You know, they - it would be hard to find a single Senate Democrat who is even surprised by how Manchin is handling this. I think Delaware Senator Chris Coons described it the way most of his colleagues would.


CHRIS COONS: Joe Manchin, since he got here - and we were sworn in on the same day - has been the most centrist Democrat of our caucus and has insisted on bipartisanship as much as is possible. That is something that's been consistent about Joe for a decade.

SNELL: You can hear there I caught up with him in the halls in the Capitol, and a bunch of reporters were trying to kind of get a handle on how do you understand Joe Manchin? And, you know, they say there is frustration among progressives, in the House in particular, but they have different political constituencies than senators do. And this is exactly why there's no room for error for Biden. He can't cave to moderates in the Senate and then hope the same legislation that satisfies them can pass in the House, where there's just a bigger, more powerful progressive wing and, you know, a fairly sizable moderate wing there, too. It is just a very, very narrow opening for success.

MCCAMMON: And what does that mean for Biden's larger agenda?

SNELL: You know, under Senate rules, you need 60 votes to clear your filibuster. So even if you had all 50 Democrats on the same page, you'd still need 10 Republicans to agree to anything. And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's going to try to stop Biden 100%. So that leaves most Senate Democrats thinking about getting rid of the filibuster. And like we said, we can't - they can't go through with that if Manchin and Sinema refuse to go along with the plan. They need every Democrat to feel like the party has been trying to get a deal with Republicans before they can move on and accept that they have to figure it all out on their own.

MCCAMMON: It is still always infrastructure week. Thanks so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.