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Sanders, exasperated with Manchin’s demands, presses senator for specifics on Biden’s domestic agenda

Sen. Bernie Sanders departs after a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 6.
Sen. Bernie Sanders departs after a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 6. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)
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For some time, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has refused to discuss at length Sen. Joe Manchin III’s demands relating to President Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion domestic spending package, appearing visibly annoyed as reporters peppered him with questions about the moderate Democratic senator’s conditions.

On Wednesday, the gloves came off.

Sanders, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and leader of the progressive movement, took direct aim at Manchin’s statements and positions on the wide-ranging legislation that would invest in climate change, expand and shore up health-care programs, and overhaul the nation’s social safety net.

In particular, Sanders targeted Manchin’s view on the role that the government should play when it comes to health care, child care and other programs, criticizing the senator’s comments uttered hours earlier that he “did not believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society.”

“Is protecting working families and cutting childhood poverty an entitlement?” Sanders asked. After rattling off similar rhetorical questions, he concluded: “Perhaps most importantly, does Senator Manchin not believe what the scientists are telling us, that we face an existential threat regarding climate change?”

Sanders later insisted that “I’m not here to disparage Senator Manchin.” But the 15-minute news conference at the Capitol spilled into the open some of the private frustrations that Democratic senators have had for weeks about Manchin (W.Va.) and his conditions on the $3.5 trillion package — a price tag that Democratic leaders from Biden on down have conceded will shrink dramatically.

Joe Manchin gets all the attention. But Kyrsten Sinema could be an even bigger obstacle for Democrats’ spending plans.

Also clearly irritating Sanders was the opaqueness of Manchin’s various demands related to the spending package, which Democratic leaders want to pass using a special budget procedure in the Senate called reconciliation that lets them avoid a Republican filibuster.

“Senator Manchin has been extremely critical of the $3.5 trillion proposal that many of us support,” Sanders said. “The time is long overdue for him to tell us with specificity — not generalities, but beyond generalities, with specificity — what he wants and what he does not want, and to explain that to the people of West Virginia and America.”

He later added that “it’s not good enough to be vague” and that a few outliers in the Democratic caucus should not have such power to sway what most Democratic lawmakers and what Biden want.

“I could, in five minutes, go to Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and say, ‘Chuck, I can’t support this bill unless you have a Medicare-for-all provision.’ But I’m not going to do that,” Sanders said. “It is wrong and it is really not playing fair that one or two people think that they should be able to stop what 48 members of the Democratic caucus want, what the American people want, what the president of the United States wants.”

He added: “Two people do not have a right to sabotage.”

Responding to Sanders, Manchin said in a statement, “Respectfully, Senator Sanders and I share very different policy and political beliefs. 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.”

Sanders also said he would “absolutely” like to see more specific demands from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the other pivotal moderate who has perhaps been more secretive in public about her views on the reconciliation package. But the bulk of Sanders’s frustration was clearly reserved for Manchin.

In his news conference Wednesday, Sanders also made clear that he was not willing to concede that the agreed-upon top-line spending level of $3.5 trillion would have to come down, even as Biden has been telling Democratic lawmakers in recent days that the package will have to shrink to about $2 trillion.