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Manchin and Sinema's love of the filibuster doesn't make them allies

The most conservative Senate Democrats split on two big issues: taxes and climate.

Senate Democrats are still at least two votes shy of any serious attempt to change the filibuster. Both Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin reiterated their stances last week in the face of an upcoming vote on voting rights that Republicans will surely otherwise block.

The pair’s stonewalling has earned them the Washington equivalent of a couple name: “Manchinema.” But beyond the filibuster, the two don’t exactly appear to be natural allies. In fact, their differences would better qualify them as frenemies than partners.

Manchin and Sinema's differences would better qualify them as frenemies than partners.

They have not teamed up on major legislation beyond the bipartisan infrastructure bill that became law last year. Since Sinema joined the Senate in 2019, she’s sponsored five bills that Manchin has co-sponsored. Only one of them — a bill that expands who can join the American Legion — has become law. Manchin, meanwhile, has put forward six bills that Sinema has joined on to, none of which have moved out of committee.

And looking at their policies, there’s not a clear area for them to cooperate on in the future either. That’s clearest when you try to compare their requirements for the Build Back Better Act, the social spending component of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda. The gap between the two on that front has driven the White House up the wall the past few months, Politico reported last October.

“Manchin and Sinema want very different things, both in terms of revenue and programs,” said a source close to Biden who spent the last few days talking to senior White House officials. “If you just took their currently presented red lines you wouldn’t have enough left to get this past progressives in the House and Senate. It wouldn’t raise enough money and it wouldn’t do enough big programs.”

There are two main places where the split is the most apparent: taxes and climate change. And if anything, it weirdly enough seems that 74-year-old Manchin is the more progressive of the two when you hold them side by side.

Over the past year, while Manchin’s top line has shrunk and his redlines have shifted, he’s consistently been in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy and businesses to pay for any new spending. His framing of getting the top earners and corporations to pay “their fair share” lines up squarely with the White House’s messaging on the matter.

Sinema, on the other hand, single-handedly nixed “any increase in marginal rates for businesses, high-income individuals or capital gains” in the Build Back Better Act, as The Wall Street Journal reported last October. The tax code changes originally planned would have raised more than $800 billion that could then be spent on programs like universal pre-K and free community college.

The Arizona senator has also been leery about allowing Medicare to directly negotiate with prescription drug makers, a shift that would have driven down the amount spent annually. While she reportedly reached a deal with the White House on the matter in late October, it’s not clear if it made it into the final package. That combined loss of potential revenue in turn made it harder for Democratic leadership to put together a package that is paid for in full.

On the climate front, yes, Manchin is responsible for nixing the Clean Electricity Payment Program, a provision that experts say would have the greatest single impact on reducing U.S. carbon emissions. That still would have left a multitude of climate provisions on the table, which Manchin has expressed openness to supporting. “There’s a lot of good things in there,” he said last month. “I’ve always said, you know, we have a lot of money in there for innovation, technology, tax credits for basically clean technologies and clean environment.”

Sinema, on the other hand, at least theoretically supports more action on preventing and mitigating climate change. A review from E&E News last year suggested “she generally favors climate action, though often through clean energy tax breaks and targeted spending rather than pushing major regulatory action to curb emissions — the route favored by many Democrats.” But she’s made silence into an art form, dodging press interviews and constituents alike, leaving nobody knowing exactly where she stands these days.

The gap between Manchin and Sinema on policy in a narrowly divided Senate makes it nearly impossible to win over both, leaving each of them empty-handed — along with the rest of their caucus. And the one thing that really links them — their shared devotion to the filibuster — in turn means that they can effectively deflect blame for that lack of progress. It’s not that the two of them are at odds with each other, you see — it’s that the rest of the party is too unwilling to compromise with Republicans on bipartisan initiatives.