But there’s a way for Chuck Schumer and Kamala Harris to neutralize the two heterodox senators. I spent my teenage years in Pine Bluff, a sleepy town in south-central Arkansas. Across the street from our house was the Pine Bluff Commercial, the town’s newspaper.
Behind the paper’s brick building was a large grassy piece of land that the newspaper owners allowed the neighborhood kids to use for sandlot sporting events.
We always had plenty of players to field two teams, but we never seemed to have enough equipment to go around. Not everyone had a baseball glove, and we didn’t always have a decent baseball for our games.
Fortunately for us, there was Corey, a kid who lived a few streets over. One summer, when I was 14 or 15, Corey seemed to have an unlimited amount of athletic equipment. He had an assortment of baseball bats — wooden and aluminum — along with several baseball gloves and balls. Whenever we saw Corey walking through the alley behind our house, a large duffel bag over his shoulder, we knew we had enough equipment to go around, and this way, we could pick sides and proceed with a few innings of baseball.
But there was a problem. Somewhere along the way, Corey realized all that equipment gave him enormous power over our games and whether we could play at all. If Corey’s team started to lose or if a close call didn’t go his way, he’d snatch up his bats, balls, and gloves and go home — leaving the rest of us standing there, unable to continue our game. The guy was an idiom playing out in real life.
As a result, we went out of our way to appease Corey. We knew if he didn’t get his way, he had the power to grind everything to a screeching halt. And even though we were just kids, we knew if we ever wanted to play a regular baseball game, we had to figure out some way to take Corey’s power away.
When the Covid-19 relief bill passed the House and headed for the Senate, I couldn’t help but think of my situation with Corey back in the day.
The stakes for Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are certainly more consequential than a sandlot ball game, but at its most basic level, his dilemma is very similar—how to deal with a person who can shut everything down.
Schumer’s control of a 50–50 Senate rests on Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break ties as president of the Senate, which is meaningless unless he holds his caucus of 50 Democratic Senators together. And with Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema often veering to the right, that’s a very tall order.
Manchin and Sinema have gone out of their way to drive home the notion that all legislative roads go through them, whether their machinations coincide with President Biden’s agenda or not.
Sinema expressed early support for maintaining the filibuster, a key Schumer bargaining chip during power-sharing negotiations and an issue of importance in the passage of health care and voting rights reforms. Sinema contacted Republican leader Mitch McConnell during the process to assure him of her support for the filibuster, sabotaging Schumer’s negotiations.
Meanwhile, Manchin flexed his swing-vote muscle, publicly chastising the White House for having the audacity to give an interview to a West Virginia media outlet without first consulting him. He has been lukewarm on several components of the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, such as providing $1,400 stimulus checks. Like Sinema, he is against raising the minimum wage to $15 and abolishing the filibuster. To top things off, Manchin opposes President Biden’s Cabinet pick for the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden — ostensibly because of her mean tweets.
On its face, Manchin’s behavior seems understandable given West Virginia’s deeply conservative makeup. However, Biden’s Covid-19 relief bill is wildly popular with Democrats as well as Republicans. Even Jim Justice, the state’s Republican governor, gave his full-throated support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package — as have dozens of other Republican governors across the country.
Senator Sinema’s position, especially on the minimum wage, is also puzzling. With the election of Mark Kelly, Democrats hold both Arizona Senate seats. That, plus Biden’s win in the Electoral College, gives Sinema plenty of political space to accommodate Biden’s agenda. After all, in Arizona, the $15 minimum wage may be more popular than Sinema herself. You’d think this would appeal to a senator headed for what promises to be a competitive 2022 reelection campaign.
Schumer could go full Lyndon Baines Johnson and call Sinema and Manchin’s bluff on the $15 minimum wage.
Why, then, is this happening? Take the House’s Covid-19 relief bill’s minimum wage provision, which passed in the wee hours of Saturday morning. A $15 wage hike is immensely popular throughout the country, even in ruby-red states like Florida, which passed a pay floor of $15 last November. So what are Democratic senators like Manchin and Sinema trying to achieve? It all boils down to one word: power.
Manchin and Sinema are the common denominators in blocking the elimination of the filibuster, the $15 minimum wage, and Neera Tanden’s OMB nomination. Their ability to torpedo legislation at will, coupled with their habit of crossing party lines, gives the two conservative senators the power to make or break the Biden agenda.