Seeking to explain his part in dramatically prolonging marathon Senate proceedings before the passage of Joe Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill, Joe Manchin may only have succeeded in exposing a dangerous fissure in Democratic ranks.
In winning controversial modifications to benefits for struggling Americans, the West Virginia senator said, he had tried to “make sure we were targeting where the help was needed” and to do “everything I could to bring us together”.
The latter remark, on Sunday to ABC’s This Week, might have provoked hollow laughter on the left. As Manchin, a powerful centrist in a Senate divided 50-50, toured the talk shows, he also faced fierce criticism from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez over his opposition to a $15 minimum wage, a measure dropped from the stimulus bill.
The progressive congresswoman from New York has attacked Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another opponent of the $15 wage, as “two people in this entire country that are holding back a complete transformation in working people’s lives”.
“The $15 minimum wage never fit in this piece of reconciliation,” Manchin told CNN’s State of the Union. “Those are the rules of the Senate.” He also said he was in favour of raising the wage to $11 – a figure unacceptable to progressives and indeed the Republicans with whom Manchin insists he is willing to work.
In the Senate on Friday, Manchin mounted a late push to scale back unemployment benefits in the stimulus package, a huge and historic piece of legislation meant to help Americans struggling amid a pandemic which has cratered the US economy. His move prompted hours of negotiations, followed by a compromise and voting through the night.
But Biden and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, refused to criticise Manchin, the senator slapping his podium and emphasising the need for “unity, unity, unity” – particularly as every Republican present voted no on Covid relief.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont attempted to include the minimum wage rise in the stimulus bill under budget reconciliation, requiring a simple majority rather than the 60-vote threshold which applies to most major legislation. But the Senate parliamentarian ruled against Sanders – much to progressives’ anger.
“I know they made a big issue about this,” Manchin told CNN, “and I understand. Everyone has their right. I respect where [Ocasio-Cortez] is coming from, I respect her input, we have a little different approach.
“We come from two different areas of the country that have different social and cultural needs. One was that you have to respect everybody.”
The stimulus bill now goes back to the House before heading to Biden’s desk. House leaders have promised smooth passage but five defections would sink the bill. On Sunday Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, was asked if she thought progressives would support it.
She told CNN the “historic and transformational piece of legislation … is going to cut child poverty and half” and said the White House hoped the left would “make that judgment” based on “what their constituents need”.
It seems clear a $15 minimum wage has no hope of clearing 60 votes in the Senate. That super-majority, known as the filibuster, is said by champions including Manchin to protect minority rights – though it came to prominence largely as a way for southern segregationists to oppose civil rights reform.
The House has passed HR1, a sweeping voting rights bill meant to counter efforts by Republicans in the states to dramatically restrict sections of the population that favour Democrats. But HR1 seems doomed unless Senate Democrats scrap the filibuster.
Even if they did, centrists like Manchin would enjoy immense power. Speaking to NBC’s Meet the Press, the senator cited his own stand on the relief bill as he explained why he was opposed to scrapping the filibuster.
“If what you saw happen with that 50-vote swing and one vote, no matter who, it maybe can make a big difference in a tied Senate, can you imagine doing day-to-day operations this way? Can you imagine not having to sit down … with your colleagues on both sides and have their input?
“…I’m willing to look at any way we can. But I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority.”
He also said he did not favour using reconciliation for voting rights legislation.
“I’m not going to change my mind on the filibuster,” he said, “[and] I’m not going to go [to reconciliation] until my Republican friends have the ability to have their say also.”
Bedingfield confirmed that Biden is also against scrapping the filibuster.
Manchin’s power in the Senate was the talk of Washington even before the drama of Friday and Saturday.
“I didn’t lobby for this position,” he told ABC. “I’ve never changed. I’m the same person I have been all my life and since I’ve been in the public offices. I’ve been voting the same way for the last 10 years. I look for that moderate middle. The common sense that comes with the moderate middle is who I am. That’s what people expect.
“…You’ve got to work a little bit harder when we have this toxic atmosphere and the divisions that we have and the tribal mentality. That’s not to be acceptable. You’ve got to work hard and fight that. Fight against those urges just to cloister in with your group and say, ‘Well, this is where I am.’”
Progressives disagree. On Friday Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey tweeted: “I’m frankly disgusted with some of my colleagues and question whether I can support this bill.” She also told USA Today she was “thinking very hard about making a statement” when the bill came back to the House.
“As progressives,” she said, “we’re going to have to figure out where the line in the sand is.”