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Bernie Sanders’s curious talking point on Manchin and Sinema

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When it comes to the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package that continues to beguile Senate Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has suddenly emerged in a bad-cop role. As others dance more gently around appealing to the two moderate holdouts, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Sanders has begun targeting them more directly.

But one talking point Sanders has invoked repeatedly continues to be a bit of a head-scratcher. It goes like this: Those two shouldn’t be able to thwart what 48 of 50 Democratic and independent senators support.

Sanders told CNN last week that, given the level of support from Senate Democrats and the American people (apparently referring to polls), “it is not appropriate, I think, for those couple of people to slow down progress.”

He added in a tweet Friday: “2 senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want.”

And he re-upped it again Wednesday when he went after Sinema and Manchin harder, saying it was “really not playing fair” and that “two people do not have a right to sabotage what 48 want and what the president of the United States wants. That, to me, is wrong.”

Sanders continued to make the point that night on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show.

This is certainly a way of characterizing the state of play in the Senate. Another very accurate way would be that it’s not just two senators standing in the way, but in fact 52 — a majority that includes those two Democrats and all 50 Republicans. Bills passed via reconciliation require a majority (in this case, 50 votes plus a tiebreaker from Vice President Harris), and a majority of the Senate does not presently support this one. Even the 210 House members Sanders cited do not represent a majority of that chamber.

(Sanders’s case echoes one made by former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich the same day as Sanders’s CNN interview: “What does it say about the system that two senators can single-handedly block progress on a slew of policies supported by the vast majority?”)

There is more nuance to what Sanders is saying than some of his critics let on. On Wednesday and in his CNN appearance, he made clear that his point wasn’t that bills should be able to pass with 48 votes, but rather that these senators shouldn’t demand the moon, given how much this bill unites the party. He has repeatedly acknowledged they have the right to pursue some concessions but suggested they are holding things up too much.

Sanders on Wednesday, in particular, reserved some of his harshest words for the lack of “specificity” that leaders have gotten from Manchin and Sinema on what they want.

“That’s exactly my point,” Sanders said. “We need some specificity here. It’s not good enough to be vague. You want to cut child care? How much do you want to cut child care?”

Sanders has also likened the situation to one in which he personally might make big demands on his own priorities — but doesn’t do that because it would doom the bill.

“I can go to [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer tomorrow and say, ‘Chuck, I’m not voting for that bill unless you have Medicare-for-all,’ but that’s not what the caucus wants,” Sanders has said. “That would be irresponsible.”

That parallel is a little less apples-to-apples than Sanders suggests, though. Manchin’s and Sinema’s objections aren’t that the bill doesn’t include some big, extra add-on that they want, but rather that it simply spends too much. Passing the bill without Medicare-for-all means Sanders still gets the things he wants, just not more of them; passing it in its present form for Manchin and Sinema means the government spends significantly more than they argue is prudent — i.e. they get something they really don’t want.

The other point is that this is very much how things have worked for quite a long time. However much Republicans have been better than Democrats at uniting in a closely divided Senate, even they have fallen victim to a handful of holdouts when in the majority.

In a 52-48 GOP Senate in 2017, three Republicans effectively killed the GOP’s Obamacare replacement, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) providing the final, climactic thumbs down. In that case, 49 of 52 GOP senators supported the bill. Was it wrong for three members to thwart something that 49 GOP senators supported? (A notable difference here: The bill was unpopular overall.)

Many other bills with a few holdouts from the majority party don’t even get to a vote, because that majority won’t even bring them up unless they are assured of passage.

It’s fair to argue that Manchin and Sinema haven’t done enough to compromise or declare what they want, but it takes things to a different level to say their opposition is “not appropriate” or “wrong” or “cannot be allowed.”

And especially given that Manchin is a senator from the state that gave President Donald Trump his second-highest vote share in 2020, Democrats have to know (or at least should know) that his distance from most of them is just a reality of passing their agenda in the current 50-50 Senate. This is a highly unusual situation with unique dynamics — a Democratic agenda relying upon a vote from a deep-red state.

You also have to wonder how compelling it is to Manchin, in particular, to have this message about how Democrats need to unite coming from Sanders, who comes from a very blue state and calls himself a democratic socialist.

Manchin’s response Wednesday, at least, suggested the answer was “not very.”

“Respectfully, Senator Sanders and I share very different policy and political beliefs,” Manchin said. “As he and I have discussed, Senator Sanders believes America should be moving towards an entitlement society while I believe we should have a compassionate and rewarding society.”

The two sides engaged in a pretty testy war of words from there.