The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats lobby Manchin and Sinema — politely — as they try to save their priorities for the domestic policy package

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. has fought for months to ensure that his fellow Democrats pump hundreds of billions of federal dollars into new subsidies for home care for the elderly and disabled. But as the party’s sweeping domestic policy bill known as Build Back Better has moved through Congress, what had once been a $400 billion plan had shrunk to $150 billion by the time it passed the House last month.

Now, with Senate action on deck in the coming weeks and at least two key Democrats threatening further cuts, Casey (D-Pa.) is on high alert.

“You just have to be vigilant,” he said this week.

His vigilance — and that of numerous other Democratic senators — is primarily trained on Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have consistently pushed back on the maximalist ambitions of President Biden and their fellow congressional Democrats. As recently as Tuesday night, Manchin sent clear signals that he believes the $1.85 trillion domestic policy bill that emerged from the House needs to be pared back further in the Senate given the threat of inflation.

“The unknown we’re facing today is much greater than the need [for] this aspirational bill that we’re looking at,” he said at a Wall Street Journal event. “We’ve got to make sure we get this right.”

Fellow Democrats are hoping their engagement can stave off a total revolt from Manchin and Sinema, who has been less publicly critical in recent weeks but has not endorsed the House bill. Many lawmakers have engaged in a last-ditch private lobbying campaign, while others — including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — have sought to build public pressure on the moderates.

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For Casey, his efforts have played out over the course of the year, starting with careful coalition-building with unions and advocacy groups that are influential in states including Arizona and West Virginia. He printed up cards with pertinent facts about home-based care in those states and others — such as the population that could be served, the number of jobs that would be created and the size of waiting lists for home care — that he distributed to other senators and offered to personally walk them through the data.

“Last year, West Virginia had 1,200 people on the waiting list — I remember that,” Casey said in an interview, recalling his discussions with Manchin. And he learned the hard way that Sinema has a close eye for detail when his card for her home state referred to “Arizonians” instead of the proper Arizonans.

“So she corrected me. I said: ‘Oh, sorry, I’m from Pennsylvania. We call each other Pennsylvanians.’ But I knew she was reading it closely,” he said.

Numerous other Democratic senators said this month that they are taking a similar approach to Manchin and Sinema — sharing data and briefing materials, offering to answer questions and otherwise taking careful steps as they lobby their colleagues. Nearly all said that their interactions with the two senators have been polite, respectful and substantive but that they rarely end in any firm commitments.

But in a 50-50 Senate, where any one member can unilaterally impose their will, fellow senators said they have little choice but to use a soft touch and hope for the best.

“Relationships, understanding where another senator is coming from and being respectful of their frame and their concerns is the best way to be persuasive with any senator,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who has pushed his colleagues to back climate and higher-education provisions.

Besides his criticism of the overall size of the package, Manchin has publicly questioned some of the key climate provisions and how many of the programs are structured — phased in or out for only a few years at time. That may hold costs down on paper, he has argued, but it could obligate Congress to spend even more when the programs inevitably expire.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday reiterated a Christmas deadline for passing a revised Build Back Better bill out of the Senate, sending it back to the House for what Democrats hope will be final approval and a presidential signature. But Manchin has continued to express public qualms, throwing that timeline into serious doubt despite the raft of internal lobbying.

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In a brief interview last week, Manchin said that he is happy to hear out his colleagues and is committed to “work through something that can be sustainable” but that it is his constituents he must ultimately answer to.

“I hear from them, trust me, on a minute-by-minute, daily basis,” he said. “My constituents are the people I’m here for. I don’t work for my colleagues; I work for my constituents.”

A few senators have opted for more-public efforts — notably Sanders, who is on a quest to not only preserve the House-passed bill but expand it to more closely match the framework he helped craft over the summer that included expanding Medicare benefits to cover dental, hearing and vision coverage. (The House bill included only hearing.)

While his colleagues might prefer a lower-key approach, Sanders has not been shy about criticizing the cutbacks — and Manchin and Sinema personally. “Two people do not have the right to sabotage what 48 want,” he said in October as intraparty tensions peaked.

In an interview this month, Sanders said he was determined to make sure the final package included robust tax increases for the wealthy and corporations, a significant Medicare expansion and a meaningful reduction in prescription drug prices. He encouraged Americans concerned about further cuts to contact not only their home-state senators but others, as well, and he rejected any concerns that the pressure could backfire.

“Members of the Senate are big boys and girls — they understand issues, and we’re going to have to come to terms with what they believe,” he said, adding that policymakers need “to start worrying about the middle class and not wealthy campaign contributors.”

Outside the Senate, some groups on the left have also embraced aggressive tactics — ranging from six-figure TV ad campaigns in Arizona and West Virginia to in-person confrontations. Immigration activists protested during a college class Sinema teaches in Arizona in October, following her into a bathroom at one point, while megaphone-toting climate activists have paddled up to Manchin’s Washington houseboat in the early morning hours.

Even some sympathetic Democrats say the overt pressure campaigns are unlikely to succeed, and they are counseling anxious activists to instead have some faith in the inside game.

“Most senators, you know, we’re stubborn,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has lobbied colleagues for prekindergarten and child-care programs. “Too much public pressure causes us to [go] the other way. The public’s entitled to do it, but I think what really matters the most is the internal discussions we have.”

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Amid Manchin’s public warnings, Sinema has issued red flags of her own, noting in interviews that the House-passed bill does not strictly fit a policy framework she negotiated with the White House. But Democratic lawmakers and aides are optimistic that Sinema is largely on board with the final bill — and that both lawmakers are eager to bring a grueling and divisive process to a close after months of wrangling that have taken a toll on Democratic approval ratings ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

While Sanders and a few others have hopes of expanding the House bill by adding back previously dropped provisions such as the full Medicare expansion, other Democrats know that adding to the $1.85 trillion price tag is unlikely given Manchin and Sinema’s public concerns. And they are bracing for the elimination of two major portions of the House bill — one that would establish a new national paid family leave program, which Manchin opposes passing on a partisan basis, and another that would offer some undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, which is subject to parliamentary challenge.

If those programs are left on the cutting-room floor, many Democrats are hoping that potentially hundreds of billions of dollars might be shifted to other priorities. But they are also trying to keep their expectations in check.

“To me, the priority is getting 50 votes,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “Joe’s been pretty clear about the parts of the House-passed bill that he doesn’t like, and I think there’s still some work to be done. So we’re all going to be invested in creative solutions to get all 50 of us to yes.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she would be happy to simply accept the House bill and declare victory, but “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“We need some people to change their minds about their supporting this bill in my own caucus,” she said. “You know who they are.”