The on-again, off-again standoff between two famous Senate centrists and the Democratic coalition is back on.
Take it from Bernie Sanders, who is watching in real time as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema sink Sanders’ preferred pick for labor secretary. The progressive Vermonter called for liberal primary challenges to both senators last year but has taken a more hands-off approach to Sinema and Manchin in recent months.
Sanders (I-Vt.) is done dancing around his two colleagues: “You have two corporate Democrats who receive a lot of money from the corporate world who do not want an advocate who is going to stand up for workers … it’s disappointing, I think it’s sad,” Sanders said of Manchin and Sinema in an interview. (Sinema left the Democratic Party last year.)
Manchin (D-W.Va.) opposes confirming Julie Su to lead President Joe Biden’s Labor Department, while Sinema (I-Ariz.) is staying quiet but viewed by the White House as balking. Taken together, the centrists have effectively sidelined Su’s nomination — the latest and most vivid flashpoint between Democrats and the duo, but far from the only one.
Manchin is flirting with a third-party presidential bid that many Democrats fear could derail Biden’s reelection, while savaging the administration’s environmental policies and routinely voting against Biden’s nominees. Sinema is drawing the ire of Democrats who are warning against her bipartisan bid to alter pilot training requirements. It’s a reminder of past progressive angst over her positions on taxes, the minimum wage and the filibuster.
Most of the Democratic caucus is trying to work with the two as they can without public disputes, but Sanders is willing to go there yet again on challenges to his colleagues: “Would I rather see more progressive leadership coming from West Virginia and Arizona? Yes.”
It all comes as both senators approach political crunch time. Manchin will decide sometime around the end of the year on whether to run for reelection — or launch a third-party White House bid. Sinema has not announced whether she will run for reelection while Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) campaigns to oust her, putting Democrats’ strategy for holding the Arizona seat into a deep freeze.
With all that in mind, most Democrats want Su to stay on as an acting labor secretary through the election. Manchin disagrees, saying in an interview that the Biden administration needs to pick a new nominee: “That shouldn’t be an acting position.”
“I’ve told [the White House]: ‘Don’t give me people that are advocates.’ This is the concern I’ve had,” Manchin said in regards to his quickening pace of opposing Biden nominees.
“Don’t expect my vote” for nominees who don’t clear that bar, he added.
Reflecting his conservative state, Manchin has voted with the president’s position least often among the 51 Democratic votes in the Senate during Biden’s presidency. That sometimes leaves Sinema as essentially the deciding vote on any nominee that Republicans unite against.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) summed up the caucus’ relationship with Manchin and Sinema as “uncertain.”
“Of course I wish I had [Manchin’s] vote. I understand when he can’t vote with us, it happens, as long as we receive good notice,” Durbin said. At times, Sinema’s positions are “more difficult” to ascertain, he said.
Sinema is a more reliable supporter of Biden’s nominees than Manchin these days. That has some allies scratching their heads about an anonymous White House official’s recent request that both Manchin and Sinema reconsider their positions on Su: In fact, Sinema hasn’t publicly announced her position, and Democrats say they don’t know what it is.
“Kyrsten promised Arizonans she’d be an independent senator who delivers lasting solutions, and that’s exactly what she’s done. She remains focused on doing what’s best for her state — not party bosses,” Sinema spokesperson Hannah Hurley said in a statement.
In addition to her typical votes for Biden nominees, Sinema has declined to engage with No Labels as it mulls a third-party presidential ticket possibilities. Manchin, by contrast, appeared at a New Hampshire event this week in on behalf of the group.
Manchin said he “truly” does not believe Biden is personally annoyed at him for flirting with a third-party presidential run. And he insisted that things are not tense between him and the White House, despite his spate of recent breaks with the president.
“We still have good conversations and, you know, I talk to all the people over there all the time. I’ve been upfront: You can be respectful, you can just disagree on the policies they have,” Manchin said.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said that “President Biden respects and has strong relationships with both senators. They work with us in good faith, and we do the same with them.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is still undecided on the Su nomination, said it’s “100 percent correct” that calling out Manchin and Sinema does not seem to work: “But you know, there’s always a first time for this shit.”
“Every time they’ve tried to pressure [Sinema] to do something other than what she believes is best for her state, it has turned into a game of chicken that party leaders inevitably lose,” said John LaBombard, a former top aide to Sinema now with the firm ROKK Solutions.
Su’s leading confirmation advocates have largely left the final whip count to the executive branch, according to Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said that the White House had largely run into a brick wall.
“I only know that Manchin is a clear no. And I know that the White House tried to have multiple conversations with Sinema and follow up on all the things she indicated to them that she wanted, and still no response,” said Duckworth, who is also tangling with Sinema over the latter senator’s proposal on flight training requirements.
Sanders still wants a floor vote on Su to hold his own colleagues accountable, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he’s still trying to confirm Su. It’s unclear whether that vote will happen.
With their own reelection races looming, it was probably only a matter of time before friction between the party and both Manchin and Sinema reared its head. Some Democrats have quietly predicted for weeks that Su would not be confirmed. Manchin, for example, says he wouldn’t have voted for her as deputy labor secretary if Marty Walsh wasn’t running the department at the time.
Plenty of Democrats also want to refocus the confirmations debate away from their own divisions and onto Republicans, none of whom support Su. Several other recent Biden nominees received blanket GOP opposition, which only raises the scrutiny of centrist and red-state senators like Tester, Manchin and Sinema.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that he has “regret” that anyone is opposing Biden’s nominees but said Manchin and Sinema have “by and large” backed the president’s picks.
“There’s always a tendency to focus on the one or two where we differ. But again, and again and again, Republicans have been unified,” he said.
The West Virginian is flirting with a third-party presidential bid and rejecting Biden nominees. And the Arizonan is drawing the ire of Democrats, too.