On Thursday morning, the White House unveiled a framework for the Democrats’ massive budget package, and surprisingly — after months of negotiations that seemed to be going nowhere — it looks pretty good.
Two attention-starved senators can’t bear to give up the media spotlight they have hogged unto themselves.
Yet, on Friday morning, the bill was still hanging in the balance because of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two of the most selfish senators I’ve seen in my decades of following national politics. For months, these two have bullied the White House and progressive Democrats into bending to their will. Key liberal priorities such as paid family leave and medical leave and measures to reduce prescription drug costs, provide two years of free community college and repeal key elements of the Trump tax cuts have been jettisoned. The total cost of the bill has been cut in half — from $3.5 trillion to around $1.75 trillion — all to satisfy Manchin’s and Sinema’s demands.
House progressives have begrudgingly accepted these changes because most seem to understand that even half a loaf is better than none. But they have maintained one unshakable and eminently reasonable demand: They would not vote on the massive infrastructure bill supported by Manchin and Sinema until the two make clear their support for the budget package. Yet, Thursday, Manchin and Sinema were still refusing to make their intentions clear. Seemingly, the two attention-starved senators can’t bear to give up the media spotlight they have hogged unto themselves.
By making it all about them, Manchin and Sinema are making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to focus on what their framework budget agreement would accomplish. And to paraphrase President Joe Biden, it’s a pretty big deal.
According to the White House, the bill would ensure two years of preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old, expand the child tax credit to benefit more than 35 million taxpayers, and cut child care costs for most Americans in half. It would fill the Medicaid gap and extend health care coverage to up to 4 million people, all the while lowering health care premiums for more than 9 million Americans. There are also billions of dollars for housing, free school lunches, increased Pell Grants for college students, expanded home health care for seniors, and a Medicare expansion for hearing aid benefits.
Perhaps the most important part of the legislation is a massive $555 billion investment for fighting climate change. To the White House’s credit, the administration kept its eyes on the biggest policy prize and the one part of Biden’s agenda that simply couldn’t wait. Without quick progress on climate change, the future of the planet hangs in the balance.
And all of this spending comes along with a trillion dollars in new infrastructure spending and eight months after Democrats enacted a $1.9 trillion relief package. That’s close to $5 trillion in new spending in just under a year, and much of it is devoted to shoring up the nation’s tattered social safety net. This package, even in its pared-down form, would be a historic and transformative accomplishment, on par with the New Deal and the Great Society.
Yet, the budget package could be even better if not for the objections of Manchin and Sinema. Take, for example, paid family leave and medical leave, an issue that has long been front and center in Democratic politics. For months now, it’s been clear that the provision would be included in the budget package. But earlier this week, Manchin decided it didn’t belong. “To put this into a reconciliation bill — it’s a major policy — is not the place to do it,” he told reporters.
Manchin raising this issue at the eleventh hour makes little sense. Why not bring up these concerns earlier? Worse than that is the attitude shown by Manchin to his Democratic colleagues. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has been talking about paid leave for years and even made it the centerpiece of her 2020 presidential campaign. In the House, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has been beating the drum on paid leave for decades. For Biden, it was a key campaign promise. One might imagine that Manchin would have enough respect for his fellow Democrats to support a policy initiative that is so important to them — and not seek to kill it for a largely procedural reason. That too, apparently, is a bridge too far for Manchin.
Manchin and Sinema are acting as though they were the ones on the presidential ballot last November. And while the Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate gives individual senators outsize power, no one else in the caucus is as focused on being pains in the neck like Sinema and Manchin are.
Manchin and Sinema are acting as though they were the ones on the presidential ballot last November.
Like many political observers, I’ve given up trying to understand Manchin’s and Sinema’s motivations. From a political perspective, they are undercutting their own party and decreasing the chances that Democrats will be able to hold on to the majority in midterm elections next year. In pushing for the removal of paid leave, tuition-free community college and lower drug prices for seniors, they are taking away winning campaign messages for Democrats in 2022. Sinema’s obstinance has led to a plummeting of her approval ratings in Arizona and an increasingly likely primary challenge. Manchin, who won re-election in 2018 by a mere 3 points is likely a long shot to win again in 2024, no matter how much he tries to distance himself from the party’s liberal wing.
None of those objections makes much sense, unless we accept that both senators have an outsize need to be the center of media attention in Washington. Democrats may get their bill passed in the end, but because of the narcissism displayed by Manchin and Sinema they will be left wondering about what could have been.