It was almost inevitable that the fight over President Joe Biden’s agenda would come down to Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Manchin.
They represent fewer than 1 percent of Americans, but there’s no clearer window into Democrats’ inability to advance their domestic priorities than the ongoing rift between the socialist Vermont Independent and the conservative West Virginia Democrat. The duo’s verbal scuffle over the pace and scope of Biden’s social spending plan is going increasingly public, with Sanders aggressively leaning on Manchin as the latter tries to trim a measure stocked with progressive priorities.
Because every single Senate Democrat will be needed to pass the prized proposal, it’s a spat that could have major policy implications beyond the personalities involved. It’s also being tracked closely by the White House; Biden spoke to both Sanders and Manchin in recent days, according to people familiar with the calls.
“They’ve never been particularly close, and they have very different approaches,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). He argued Democrats have a solution: “It’s called Joe Biden.”
The president may find it hard to make peace. While they hail from opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, Sanders and Manchin have some big things in common. They both hold seats at the party’s leadership table, and they share a stubborn streak when challenged on their biggest goals.
Still, both took pains Monday to demonstrate their collegiality. Manchin and Sanders met for a short one-one-one Monday evening and told reporters afterward that “we’re talking.” Manchin then called Sanders over for a photo together outside the Capitol.
After Sanders placed an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that earned a sharp rebuke from Manchin on Friday, the West Virginian shrugged off the attempted intra-party squeeze when asked in person. Sanders hitting him back home “doesn’t make things harder for me. It is what it is,” Manchin said. Sanders declined to comment about the op-ed as he raced to a Monday night meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s leadership team, which includes Manchin.
And despite Sanders’ entreaties, not to mention their camera-ready confab on Monday, Manchin seemed in no rush to cut a deal on Biden’s domestic agenda. Throwing cold water on Democrats’ self-imposed Oct. 31 deadline, the centrist referred reporters back to his initial $1.5 trillion offer to Schumer: “I haven’t changed. I’ve been clear where I am at.”
Some Democrats said that Sanders had erred by going after his colleague in his home state. Manchin has long said senators shouldn’t campaign against each other, and the op-ed from Sanders was “a mistake,” according to one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to speak candidly: “It didn’t accomplish anything. We’re in a position to get this thing done. Everybody has to act like an adult.”
“Senators are entitled to their own opinions, and I’m hopeful Sens. Sanders and Manchin will have some time this week to have a conversation about it,” added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “I understand why Sen. Manchin reportedly did not respond well to having an editorial written in one of his home state papers.”
Beyond their headstrong natures, the two both climbed the rungs of local politics to find themselves in some of the most influential positions in American politics. Sanders is a former presidential candidate who now chairs the Budget Committee that sets spending levels, while Manchin is the Senate’s de facto swing vote and leads the Energy Committee.
But their personas diverge from there: The back-slapping Manchin is a former quarterback who opposes abortion rights, works to protect his state’s coal industry and is probably the only Democrat who can win statewide office in his West Virginia these days. The New York-bred Sanders is often brusque and resolute in his view that social liberalism, including a strong safety net, can benefit the poor and working-class — especially in West Virginia.
In their minds, both men think they have already compromised on their visions for a large-scale party-line spending bill. Sanders wanted a $6 trillion topline spending number then came down to $3.5 trillion, while Manchin has suggested he didn’t want one at all, then came up to $1.5 trillion.
“They’re going to do battle in public. I don’t think that there’s any way around that,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Even so, Murphy warned that “every single day that we’re consumed by internal debates and internal arguments is a day that we’re not actively selling” the social spending proposal to the public.
Murphy, like most in the party, is willing to meet Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) at a lower spending number. But rank-and-file Democrats are still waiting for a breakthrough.
Sanders is betting he still has influence in West Virginia after winning the Democratic primary there during 2016 presidential run. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said that Sanders “has a certain popularity” in the Mountain State but that it’s “very niche.” She predicted his op-ed would have little impact.
“I don’t think it has any effect at all, quite honestly,” Capito said. “Trying to pressure Sen. Manchin in that way probably just stiffens his spine, I would think.”
But Sanders is channeling a broader impatience among Democrats who are weary after weeks of stalled negotiations between Manchin and the White House. The intra-party fighting is taking a toll on Democratic caucus members, several of whom declined to comment about the Manchin-Sanders standoff.
“I usually don’t get in the middle of family feuds,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Those who did comment expressed sympathy for Sanders’s restlessness but also said Manchin doesn’t respond well to pressure campaigns. In other words, Democrats don’t exactly view the duo’s back-and-forth as productive toward their end goal of getting a deal.
“I don’t think much moves Manchin. I think he makes up his own mind,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). “Bernie’s got to do what Bernie’s got to do. He’s trying to push for an agenda that really helps the people of West Virginia. And, listen, Joe Manchin is not new to op-eds. He’s written quite a few himself.”