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Democrats Should Call Manchin and Sinema’s Bluff, Right Now

It’s time for Democratic leaders to make Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and every other senator vote — and not on some gutted half measure, but on a real $3.5 trillion bill.

Senator Joe Manchin at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

As millions of Americans are being cut off from jobless benefits, pulverized by health care costsbankrupted by the COVID economy, and battered by the intensifying climate apocalypse, the country has spent weeks watching Senator Joe Manchin issue royal edicts from the deck of his luxury yacht, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema toggling between spa fundraisers and a European vacation. The Senate apparently has so little to do, it has time this week for a confirmation hearing to deliver disgraced Chicago mayor-turned-Wall Street-mogul Rahm Emanuel a cushy ambassadorship — an insulting spectacle scheduled on the seven-year anniversary of Emanuel’s police force murdering teenager Laquan McDonald.

The interminable delay of an up or down Senate vote on President Joe Biden’s agenda serves no one other than Sinema, Manchin, and their corporate donors who want the bill gutted or killed. Every day Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stalls a vote on an already-scaled-back $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, Senate Democrats become more complicit in the betrayal of their party’s campaign promises, the evisceration of the working class, and the destruction of the climate.

They can make a different choice and hold a vote right now.

As Sunrise Movement cofounder Will Lawrence said: “Put the bill on the floor, load it up with extra investment for West Virginia and Arizona, and dare them to vote it down.”

That’s not what Manchin and Sinema want — they and their corporate paymasters love the current slow-walk. As the process drags out, the pair get to keep making ever-changing, mercurial declarations about parts of the legislation they and their donors dislike, and then they get to continue raking in campaign cash from industries that would benefit from hollowing out the bill. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats and the White House keep responding to the jeremiads by promising to whittle down the legislation all to appease the Wolf of West Virginia and the Arizona Attention Freak.

If this is a grand game of poker, both Manchin and Sinema have so far played their hands masterfully, bluffing a $6 trillion proposal down to $4 trillion, then to $3.5 trillion, then down to $1.9 trillion, and potentially on its way to two bucks and a used Casio wristwatch. Now they are doubling down on their strategies, expecting nobody in power to call and make them show their cards.

Sinema is once again saying she won’t even consider voting for the reconciliation bill unless the Republican-backed, lobbyist-sculpted infrastructure legislation she and Manchin negotiated passes first.

At the same time, word leaked this week that Manchin wants the bill’s major climate provisions watered down or deleted. Then we learned that the West Virginia senator wants to subject the child tax credit to work requirements.

Considering the existing child tax credit’s success in reducing poverty, Manchin’s latter demand is not even pretending to be a serious policy, it’s quite obviously just a sadistic idea deliberately crafted to inflict harm. It is so cartoonishly mean-spirited and has so much Dr Evil energy that it suggests Manchin has transformed into a movie villain gleefully engineering a pain tolerance experiment to see whether the American population is going to tolerate his expensive loafers repeatedly kicking the face of the working class.

As grotesque as they are, the gambits from Sinema and Manchin do at least give us a glimpse of their overall strategy. The pair is not only wagering that House progressives will ultimately bail on their “no climate, no deal” pledge to hold out, but also that Democratic leaders will capitulate on anything and everything. More specifically, Sinema and Manchin are betting that concern trolling the bill in the press will prompt party leaders to once again hack away at the legislation before the two senators are ever put on the spot to vote yes or no.

And so far, the wager is working. In the name of appeasing the two apostates, the White House is reportedly firing up the legislative blowtorch to further incinerate the climate provisions, even as scientists are begging them to instead stop the incineration of the Earth’s ecosystem.

“We Have Very Little Time”

For his part, Schumer previously — and accurately — went on record suggesting that gutting his party’s promised agenda would be both a political and ecological disaster.

Earlier this year, he promised that Democrats had learned their lesson from the election debacles of the Obama era, and were “not going to make the mistake” of scaling back their ambitions to try to appease conservatives. Then, in August, Schumer sent a letter to every Senate Democrat saying that when it comes to the reconciliation bill, “we have very little time to prevent the most horrendous outcomes for our children and grandchildren,” adding that “I do not believe we have the luxury of failure if we are to provide a good future for ourselves and our children.”

He’s correct, and he could force the issue by simply putting the compromise $3.5 trillion reconciliation package on the floor of the Senate for an up or down vote — a call-the-bluff, with-us-or-against-us move that Manchin and Sinema probably do not expect, and do not relish facing. After all, they’ve got a great situation right now. They get to keep sitting at the poker table making gestures and grunts that prompt Democrats to continue folding. If things keep progressing like this, they may be able to bluff their way into gutting the bill and generating a big payout for their donors, without ever having to show their cards.

But if Schumer and Biden and their party actually wants to pass a real reconciliation bill that isn’t gutted (granted, that’s a big “if”), then they should remember that old adage about rigged games: The only winning move is not to play.

One way to stop playing the game Manchin, Sinema, and their corporate sponsors are playing is to schedule a vote on a bill. And to really up the ante, Democratic leaders could add a bunch of programs that will target aid and investment to West Virginia and Arizona.

Holding a vote would make this terrible twosome go on record voting against paid family leave, universal pre-K, free community college, and every other wildly popular and desperately needed initiative in the legislation.

Holding a vote would make Manchin try to explain why he would deny an expansion of dental care to seniors in West Virginia, who are facing a dental health crisis. It would compel him to explain why he takes orders from Exxon lobbyists, and is trying to kill climate initiatives when West Virginia is the most flood-threatened state in America, and only a tiny fraction of its jobs is actually in mining.

Similarly, holding a vote would make Sinema head back to the desert and explain why she is betraying her own explicit prescription drug promises and killing drug pricing legislation for Arizona seniors, and make her explain why she’s voting down climate legislation when the climate crisis could soon make large regions of her state uninhabitable.

Hold the damn vote. Now.

A Calculated Gamble

Polls show the reconciliation bill remains wildly popular, despite corporate media obscuring its details in vapid horse race coverage. Even so, forcing the issue and holding a vote is, admittedly, a bit of a gamble. While there is little historical precedent for a pair of Democrats tanking their own party’s agenda at the legislative finish line, these are unprecedented times. On a final passage vote on a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, the two could opt to join Republicans and reject the bill.

But ask yourself: Why would that official rejection be so tragic, compared to where we are now? The answer is, it wouldn’t be.

For some reason, lots of people seem to believe that a bill getting initially voted down means it’s all over, and the bill cannot be quickly tweaked and brought up again — even though that’s happened all the time throughout history. Indeed, some huge bills — Medicare, the TARP program, etc. — have taken a few tries to pass.

If that happened again now — if Manchin and Sinema voted no on an initial reconciliation bill — the legislation wouldn’t be in a different place than it is right now. In fact, some form of the bill might actually have a better chance of ultimately passing, because more people would be even more pissed off and willing to mobilize against the duo in response to their obviously reckless behavior.

But there must be a real campaign, not just press releases and tweets. There has to be everything from television ads shaming the targets, to a full White House arm-twisting operation, to public protests. That’s the only way to have any chance to make Manchin, Sinema, and other potential apostates feel extremely uncomfortable.

If that happened, the wavering senators would be put on the spot, which is a place most professional politicians — even the corrupt narcissists — typically do not want to be.

In an up or down vote scenario, Democratic traitors following through on their bluffs and threats would be required to withstand what could be an absolutely withering amount of pressure and shaming. Their permanent legacy will be destroying their party’s presidency, and potentially their party’s long-term viability.

Maybe that doesn’t matter to Manchin and Sinema, because they are sociopaths and because they’re positioned to get paid out for just such a no vote when they leave office. But maybe it would matter to them because at least in theory, they are still human beings, and most human beings don’t like to be world-famous pariahs whose ecocidal narcissism will be permanently enshrined in the geologic record.

And again, if the bill can just be brought up again, what is there really to lose?

A Democratic apologist might counter that, all evidence to the contrary, their beloved party leaders are playing some brilliant game of fifteen-dimensional chess and the reason the bill hasn’t been put to a vote yet is because Manchin and Sinema may get their precious feelings hurt and get mad if they are put on the spot.

Sure, that’s possible — but if this amoral pair is really willing to take down their entire party’s agenda, they’ve already made that lobbyist-directed decision. If that’s what’s going on, compelling them to vote isn’t going to be some sort of trajectory-changing setback — and it at least presents the chance to make them think twice.

It Only Works With a Real Campaign

Of course, there are many “ifs” at play here — the most important being the existence of such a carrot-and-stick pressure campaign. Put simply: Calling their bluff and holding a vote doesn’t work if the White House, the party apparatus, and Washington’s constellation of liberal advocacy groups aren’t all in on a campaign to shame Manchin and Sinema for obstruction, and reward them for support.

So far, Sinema has been hit with a nasty resolution from the Arizona Democratic Party and the threat of a real primary in 2024, and Manchin is now throwing a temper tantrum after Senator Bernie Sanders published an op-ed in a West Virginia newspaper politely suggesting that he help working people and support the bill. That reaction from Manchin is encouraging — it suggests he could end up completely freaked out if he ever faced real, sustained pressure at home.

But those reprimands have been the exceptions. In general, the Biden administration and much of the professional liberal establishment in Washington have shown no appetite for any kind of intra-party conflict. In fact, Biden’s political machine actually aired ads thanking Sinema for supporting a drug pricing policy she has been helping her pharmaceutical industry donors stymie.

That kind of feeble obsequiousness reflects the modern Democratic Party’s nihilistic culture of conflict avoidance.

Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson are still rightly celebrated for bullying, intimidating, and cajoling conservative Democrats into supporting the New Deal and Medicare. But today’s Democratic politicians, Democratic voters, and Democratic-aligned media voices have been inculcated to get the vapors and have fainting spells any time one Democrat pressures another Democrat. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary’s ahistorical aversion to any robust conflict proved that, and the legislative debate is so far proving it as well — with potentially horrific consequences for the economy and the environment.

Those consequences are not preordained — at least not yet. There is still time to avert a disaster, but only if the party that controls the lawmaking process is willing to use hardball tactics and have a long-overdue fight with itself — right now.

If it isn’t, Democrats will be admitting they aren’t even willing to sit down at the poker table, ante up and play a real game. They’ll be letting us know that either they are unwilling to muster the courage to deliver for their voters, or they are knowingly and deliberately complicit in the problems their corporate donors are creating.