Although President Biden has managed to enact landmark covid relief and a bipartisan infrastructure measure, his legislative agenda has come to a halt. Democrats have been unable to secure the support of two moderate senators, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), to pass Biden’s top priorities including rebuilding the nation’s social safety net and protecting voting rights. That’s a problem with an evenly split Senate.
We shouldn’t be surprised. As I argue in my new book, so-called moderate senators today represent highly competitive states, encouraging them to selectively distance themselves from fellow partisans, sometimes even on the party’s most important priorities.
Here’s what you need to know about the influence of Manchin and Sinema on Democrats’ fortunes.
Cross-pressured, not moderate
Sinema and Manchin — like most Senate moderates today — are trying to represent a nearly equal partisan mix of voters back home.
In my analysis of the 10 most moderate senators from the 116th Congress (2019-2021), five moderates represented states in which the opposing party’s presidential candidate has consistently won the state’s electoral votes — for instance, a Democrat representing a state that regularly votes for Republican presidential candidates, or a Republican who hails from a state that votes for Democrats. Among Democrats, that currently includes Manchin from the deep red state of West Virginia and Jon Tester from Montana. To protect their chances of getting reelected, senators whose voters lean toward the other party often need to balance their own party’s demands against the views of their electorate.
The other five represent “swing states” that are nearly evenly divided along party lines and could support either party for president. This includes Sinema, who represents the swing state of Arizona.
These precarious circumstances keep moderates in the electoral crosshairs, forcing them to behave differently from senators whose voters consistently back their own party, and who can be more ideologically extreme.
The main strategy moderates use to protect themselves from volatile constituencies is to avoid being seen as the pivotal vote in passing their party’s agenda.
We can see this by comparing the legislative activities of moderates to those of their electorally safe colleagues. I created a dataset of every amendment proposed on legislative measures on the Senate floor that was categorized as a “key vote” by the Capitol Hill news outlet Congressional Quarterly between 2003 and 2013.
Using measures of ideology that political scientists commonly use called DW-nominate scores (available from Voteview.com), I found that party leaders and those sitting at the ideological wings of their respective parties — but not the moderates — were most likely to offer amendments to major measures. That means that on average, senators from cross-pressured states in both the majority and minority parties offered fewer amendments than their counterparts.
I also took a closer look at senators’ behavior as Congress considered the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010. I found that, on average, consistently liberal or conservative senators proposed approximately nine more amendments than their more moderate counterparts. When it came to speaking on the record, party leaders and partisan senators delivered the lion’s share of speeches in opposition to or defense of the bill. When moderates spoke, they focused their speeches on popular parts of the bill. They also avoided taking clear positions on controversial proposals during negotiations.
Hard to hide in a 50-50 Senate
In an evenly divided Senate, it’s hard for senators to escape notice. Reporters and voters can clearly see that Manchin and Sinema are typically the 49th and 50th votes needed to get Biden’s agenda through the Senate, at least on those measures or nominations that Republicans cannot block with a filibuster.
No surprise then that both senators sometimes try to avoid attracting attention to their policy positions. One of the common refrains of frustration from Democrats toward both senators is their frequent refusal to clearly articulate why they oppose a bill or provision or what changes they would need to vote for it.
That’s why Manchin, Sinema and even other moderates like Tester generally oppose banning the filibuster — although even Tester voted for Democrats’ proposal to eliminate the filibuster for voting rights. If the filibuster disappears, moderates will always be in the spotlight, putting their positions on the record and thus more visible to voters back home.
Deals are still possible this year
Nevertheless, it’s still possible that Manchin and Sinema could support versions of Build Back Better and the voting rights bills.
Moderates are generally much more likely to vote with their partisan team in two circumstances: first, on their party’s top priorities and second, when they hail from the president’s party. In other words, despite their need to demonstrate independence, moderates are generally not interested in embarrassing their party or their president. Of course, there are exceptions: Both Sinema and Manchin are members of the president’s party, and Build Back Better and voting rights are urgent parts of the Democrats’ agenda.
To win them over, Democrats need to offer each senator something to take back their voters.
For example, when the Senate considered the Affordable Care Act, Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) were viewed as especially influential — even though neither lawmaker was intricately involved in writing the bill. But because their votes were so critically needed, Democrats offered Nebraska and Louisiana exemptions from some of measure’s mandates (although these special provisions didn’t make it into the final law).
This is probably what’s most misunderstood about Senate moderates. When I interviewed top legislative staff in senators’ offices, most didn’t view moderates as particularly influential on final policy outcomes. Instead, Capitol Hill staff see moderates as much more effective on legislative measures that directly affect their geographic regions and home states. If Manchin and Sinema can show their voters how either of these bills brings home local benefits, they might be swayed to vote for these top party priorities.
Neilan S. Chaturvedi (@ChaturvediNeil) is associate professor of political science at Cal Poly Pomona, a fellow at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, and author of “Life in the Middle: Marginalized Moderate Senators in the Era of Polarization” (Oxford University Press, 2021).