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Centrist Democrats are flexing their muscles, causing Biden headaches

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Centrist Democrats are flexing their muscles, causing Biden headaches

West Virginia’s moderate Democratic senator is suddenly one of Washington’s most influential individuals.

President Joe Biden has had several one-on-one phone calls with Sen. Joe Manchin. With a single five-minute interview or three-sentence comment, he could send the White House into a tailspin. And he may have already derailed some of the strategic goals of the administration and a nominee from the Cabinet.

And it is not just Manchin who wields outsize power over the agenda of Biden. Other moderate Democrats like Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana still have considerable political control in Biden’s Washington, with a 50-50 split in the Senate leaving no room for error on difficult votes, making for a muscular counterweight to the progressives that make up the base of the party.

Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said, “Each and every one of these members has the ability to be the king or queen-maker on Capitol Hill.” “They can have a real impact if they stick together and flex their muscles, particularly given the tight margins in both the House and the Senate.”

Although Biden spent most of the 2020 Democratic primary and general election campaigns being hounded by progressives for not supporting far-left views on anything from criminal justice to health care, some of his most influential former left antagonists, such as Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, have received praise for his first month in office.

Now it is the moderates that are causing the Democratic president’s headaches.

Late last week, when Manchin released a brief statement against her appointment because of her divisive tweets targeting members of both parties, Manchin all but tanked the Biden administration’s candidate for Office of Management and Budget director, Neera Tanden. Immediately, Tanden’s chances for acceptance sunk. Political analysts are also waiting to see if Manchin would support Vivek Murthy, the candidate for Surgeon General, whom he opposed in 2014.

Manchin caused a stir a few weeks back when he publicly criticised Vice President Kamala Harris for doing a television interview with a local West Virginia station that was seen as an attempt to persuade him to support the COVID-19 bill. Shortly after his complaint, he got a call from the White House to attempt to smooth things over.

Manchin is one of a handful of centrist Democrats who have expressed concern about the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill by Biden, threatening to derail the top priority of the president unless they win concessions. Manchin, Sinema and Tester both called for more targeted assistance to Americans, and they all signed an amendment, along with five other centrist Democrats and seven Republicans, barring “upper-income taxpayers” from being eligible for stimulus restrictions.

The dilemma here is, I don’t want to do too much,” said Tester, “and I don’t want to do too little. “I would like to ensure that it is targeted and justified.”

Biden’s plan to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour is also opposed by Manchin and Sinema, potentially meaning that it is excluded from the final COVID-19 bill even though it can be included in the Senate parliamentary rules. Both have also attracted the wrath of progressives for their reluctance to accept the abolition of the 60-vote threshold for most legislation to be enacted, with one progressive organisation threatening to employ primary challengers to oppose them.

Moderates are likely to also affect the next major legislative drive by the Biden administration, a major bill on infrastructure and jobs that will include climate planks. Manchin and others from rural states want to see cash commitments and improvements in rural infrastructure to offset any employment losses in the oil and gas industry.

Neither Manchin nor Sinema are perceived to be particularly vulnerable to a primary challenge. In fact, the political realities of a red-leaning state like West Virginia, or a purple state like Arizona, are what guides the staunch centrism of the senators, says Chris Kofinis, former Manchin chief of staff.

Both of these senators are always going to sit there and think, what do they want from my constituents? What are they needing? And because of the peculiar nature of politics in their states, which are typically more polarised by nature, moderates generally seem to be far more susceptible to that, Kofinis said.

Those political issues are expressed by the White House.

Democrats will need to win over suburban moderate voters in difficult, Republican-leaning House districts and in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio, where they expect to win nationally, to protect and extend their majorities in the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, if they expect to win reelection in difficult states, would also need to retain support among moderate voters.

Their relevance to the final vote on the COVID-19 bill means that the White House is already getting extra scrutiny from some moderates.

According to a Manchin aide, Biden has talked to Manchin several times, including at least once right after the president was sworn in. Manchin reaches out to the president occasionally, while the president reaches out to him sometimes.

Yet moderates don’t necessarily get personal attention from the president and aren’t always asking for it.

Some of those who come from deep-red states, where it would be politically awkward to be seen as too friendly with a Democratic president, avoid telling whether they have talked to Biden at all.

Some say their workers are in almost constant communication with the White House, including Sinema and Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

‘I suspect they’ve got Joe Manchin on the speed dial,’ joked King. But he said, depending on where they stand on the COVID relief bill, the dynamic varies from member to member.

Tester said he is not yet at the stage that he is searching for the president’s personal calls because his team members are the ones who are actively involved in the negotiating specifics, and they are in constant touch with their colleagues in the White House.

Yet he was conscious of the strength he had to put the president on the phone if he wanted to.

“Every time I have an urge to ring his doorbell, I’m not going to ring his doorbell,” he said. “When it is of the highest value, I will use that ability to contact him.”

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