Centrist Democrats flex muscles, create headaches for Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) – A moderate Democratic senator from West Virginia is suddenly one of the most powerful people in Washington.

Senator Joe Manchin has had several one-on-one phone calls with President Joe Biden. He can send the White House into a whirlwind with a single five-minute interview or a three-sentence statement. And he may have already derailed some of the administration’s political priorities and a cabinet candidate.

And it’s not just Manchin who exerts a disproportionate influence on Biden’s agenda. With a 50-50 split in the Senate leaving little room for error on tough votes, other moderate Democrats like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana also hold significant political clout in Washington’s. Biden, which constitutes a muscular counterweight to the progressives. which make up the base of the party.

“Each of these members has the ability to be the creator of the King or Queen of Capitol Hill,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “If they stick together and flex their muscles – especially given the tight margins in the House and Senate – they can have a real impact.

While Biden spent much of the 2020 Democratic primary and general election campaigns being stalked by progressives for not embracing far-left positions on everything from criminal justice to health care, his first month in the power has been hailed by some of its most prominent former antagonists. the left as Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders.

Now it’s the moderates who are creating the headaches for the Democratic president.

Late last week, Manchin all but rejected administration candidate Biden for Bureau of Management and Budget director Neera Tanden when he released a brief statement opposing her appointment in because of his controversial tweets attacking members of both parties. Tanden’s prospects for approval immediately sank. Political observers are also waiting to see whether Manchin will support surgeon general candidate Vivek Murthy, whom he opposed in 2014.

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A few weeks ago, Manchin caused a stir by publicly criticizing Vice President Kamala Harris for doing a TV interview with a local West Virginia station that was seen as an effort to pressure him to support the COVID-19 bill. He received a call from the White House shortly after his complaint to try to resolve the issue.

Manchin is one of the few centrist Democrats to have expressed skepticism about Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill, threatening to derail the president’s top priority if they don’t win concessions. Manchin, Sinema and Tester have all called for more targeted aid for Americans, and they all, along with five other centrist Democrats and seven Republicans, signed an amendment prohibiting “high income taxpayers” from being eligible for cash checks. relaunch.

“The challenge here is that I don’t want to do too much and I don’t want to do too little,” Tester said. “I want to make sure it’s focused and justified.”

Manchin and Sinema also oppose Biden’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour, likely ensuring it is removed from the final COVID-19 bill even if the Senate parliamentarian decides that it can be included. They have also both drawn the ire of progressives for their refusal to support removing the 60-vote threshold for approval of most laws, with a progressive group threatening to recruit primary challengers to oppose them.

Moderates are sure to influence the Biden administration’s next big legislative push, a major infrastructure and jobs bill that will include climate boards. Manchin and other rural countries want to see financial commitments for rural infrastructure and investments to offset job losses in the oil and gas industry.

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Neither Manchin nor Sinema are seen as particularly vulnerable to a major challenge. The political realities of a red-lipped state like West Virginia, or a purple state like Arizona, are actually what guide senators’ steadfast centrism, says former Manchin chief of staff Chris Kofinis.

“Is each of these senators going to sit there again and wonder what my constituents want?” What do they need? And I think moderates in general tend to be a lot more sensitive to that because of the unique nature of politics in their states, which are by nature generally more divided, ”Kofinis said.

The White House shares these political concerns.

To defend and expand their majorities in the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm election, Democrats will need to win over moderate suburban voters in tough, Republican-leaning neighborhoods and states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina. North and Ohio, where they hope to win. statewide. Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia will also need to maintain the support of moderate voters if they hope to be re-elected in difficult states.

Their importance to the final vote on the COVID-19 bill means that some moderates are already receiving special attention from the White House.

Biden has spoken to Manchin on several occasions, according to a Manchin aide, including at least once right after the president was sworn in. Sometimes Manchin reaches out to the president, while sometimes the president extends it.

But moderates don’t always get – and don’t always seek – the president’s personal attention.

Some of those who come from deep red states, where being perceived as too comfortable with a Democratic president would be politically problematic, avoid saying if they’ve spoken to Biden at all.

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Some, like Sinema and Maine Senator Angus King, an independent who Caucasian with Democrats, say their staff are in almost daily contact with the White House.

“I suspect they’ve got Joe Manchin on speed dial,” King joked. But he said the dynamics vary from member to member depending on their stance on the COVID relief bill.

Tester said he is not yet at the point where he is seeking personal appeals from the president because his staff members are deeply involved in the details of the negotiations and are in frequent contact with their White House counterparts. .

But he was aware of the power he wields to get the president to the phone if he needs it.

“I’m not going to ring her doorbell every time I feel like ringing her doorbell,” he said. “I will use this ability to contact him when it is of the highest value.”

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