Miscalculating Sinema and Manchin could end up costing Biden


“DANGEROUS CREATURE,” the Arizona Democrat’s sweater echoed in capital letters.

Tanden’s nomination was already on life support after Manchin said he would not support her, citing old tweets she wrote that looked down on members of both parties. And like Sinema, the West Virginia Democrat also says he opposes raising the minimum wage.

The huge role the centrists will play in Biden’s efforts in Congress has garnered so much attention (and, in some cases, private ire) from White House officials that they loathe to appear indebted to a small group of people. But legislators have almost no margin for error in closed voting.

As the White House maintained its public support for Tanden on Wednesday, an official suggested that the increasingly quixotic effort to secure his confirmation was intended, in part, to counter the perception that Manchin had the sole ability to derail Mr. Biden.

Senate rules have always allowed any individual senator to slow down a nomination, but the dynamics of a 50-50 split in the chamber has given Sinema and Manchin even more power to determine the fate of a nomination or law.

“That’s usually the case that a senator can stop things. It’s more dramatic now because we, the Democratic majority, need to do things. We need to give the president his team,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, said Wednesday. as Tanden’s nomination floated in limbo. “We are doing a kind of large-scale effort that includes the White House and members to find support.”

Since taking office, Biden has had a series of phone conversations with Manchin, according to his aides, and the White House is in regular communication with Sinema’s office to assess his position in several areas of intense administrative interest.

When asked about the influence that two moderate Democrats could wield over Biden’s staff and political agenda, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “has the benefit of the experience of recognizing power. of any individual senator or individual member, and he certainly respects that. ”

Different styles

Sinema has long been a tough defender of her views, but she has a habit of expressing them privately to Democratic leaders and not in the halls of the capital with reporters or in national television interviews. Sinema, who was elected to Congress in 2018, doesn’t typically announce how she will vote for a nominee or a bill until she goes to the floor and does so.

The Arizona senator has been one of the fiercest implementers of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on distancing indoors during the coronavirus pandemic, riding in elevators without other people, and remembering with severity to journalists who stay away from her and others. For months, she wore neon wigs instead of going to hair salons to touch up her blonde color.

In both her political style and her biography, she is a different type of senator than Manchin, with whom Biden worked during his years as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Manchin has publicly accepted his role as a potential saboteur of his own party, spreading his disputes and enjoying his reputation as a king-maker while provoking the irritation of the president’s allies.

Some White House officials said they felt they had better control over Manchin than Sinema, who had not served during a Democratic administration until now. A close adviser told CNN that Manchin is well aware of what Biden’s red lines are. In many ways, Manchin is doing nothing different than what he has done for years in Washington, often annoying his fellow Democrats in the process, although now his independent streak has assumed enormous potential for losing tight votes.

He broke Democratic ranks multiple times in the Trump administration, voting for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and US Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell. The former West Virginia governor appeared in a 2010 campaign ad using a rifle to poke holes in a Democratic climate bill.

Sinema is newer on paper and because she is cautious in her public appearances, she has proven to be an enigma to officials trying to determine her motives or demands.

“She comes from politics,” a White House adviser said of Sinema’s unwillingness to say how she will vote on Tanden’s nomination. “He doesn’t judge personal things so much.”

What they have in common, according to Democratic aides, is an innate knowledge of what it takes to win tough races in their states: purple Arizona for Sinema and red-leaning West Virginia for Manchin. Their politics are often a reflection of the people they represent rather than the rank and file of the Democratic party that propels them to the left.

That has proven frustrating for some members of Biden’s team who relied on Democratic unity in the president’s first 100 days, hoping the party’s cooperation will quickly move its nominees to cabinet and enact landmark coronavirus legislation. Instead, what the administration has found are moderate Democrats willing to oppose their party when state policy demands it.

When asked after the signing of an executive order Tuesday if he was concerned about delays in confirming his cabinet nominees, Biden said yes.

“I don’t blame the Senate so much,” he said, “I blame the failure of a transition that was rational.”

Sinema and Manchin, both defenders of the Senate as an institution, have helped their party leadership navigate through difficult deadlocks with the Republicans in recent weeks. Their shared opposition to removing obstructionism helped eventually Republicans and Democrats agree to an organizational resolution that would allow Democrats to take control of the committees after winning the Senate.

But they have also flagged positions early in the Biden administration that have caused turmoil and frustration among their Democratic colleagues and the White House.

Warning signs

Manchin’s biggest red flag came early in the administration, when he chided Vice President Kamala Harris for conducting a local interview in West Virginia that seemed too designed to pressure Manchin into supporting Covid’s aid package. Shortly after he made his complaints public, the White House called him to try to repair the damage.

In his round of interviews, Harris also spoke to media in Arizona, an unsubtle attempt to pressure Sinema to vote for the $ 1.9 trillion package, which polls show a majority of Americans support.

Sinema did not publicly complain like Manchin. But then she became the first Democrat to officially oppose the $ 15 minimum wage as part of the coronavirus relief bill. Sinema has said that it is superfluous to the underlying package and that the relief should be aimed at vaccinating Americans, protecting small businesses and getting children back to school. He has also joined with other moderates to call for more specific help and a cap on high-income people receiving stimulus checks.

Amid his concerns, Biden has expressed doubts that a minimum wage increase will be included in the final bill. And he has expressed his openness to more specific controls.

Manchin’s announcement of opposition to Tanden was also the first indication that his chances for confirmation were shrinking. He gave Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer a notice before issuing his statement, but still sent the White House into damage control mode when he released it Friday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Sinema’s undeclared position was, at least in part, to blame for a delay in the committee’s vote on Tanden. Sinema, who is on the Senate Committee on Government Affairs and National Security, declined to say how he would vote. A source told CNN that the committee was specifically concerned about Sinema’s condition and did not want to risk voting on Tanden without knowing the outcome.

Publicly, the White House is backing Tanden, insisting they are seeking to identify at least one Republican vote to ensure confirmation. Privately, some officials have admitted that their nomination could easily backfire, noting that presidents often don’t confirm all of their nominees.

Several advisers told CNN that Biden’s team leaned so confidently toward the idea of ​​his party aligning with the nominations that minimal outreach was carried out to convince moderate Republicans to vote for Tanden. Even after Manchin spoke out against Tanden, moderate Republicans heard little or nothing from the White House, according to his aides.

On Monday, the only Republican who could determine Tanden’s fate, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said she had not spoken to the White House about the nomination, though by Wednesday she said officials had reached out.

By then, his fellow Republicans, Senator Susan Collins and Mitt Romney had already officially announced their opposition to Tanden’s nomination.

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