Are Senators Manchin and Sinema the problem, or the solution?
It’s been a roller coaster of a week in Washington as Democrats tried to advance a 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill —passed with bipartisan support— and a more ambitious 3.5 trillion dollar expansion of the societal safety net that lacks a single republican supporter.
When all was said and done, Democrats failed to vote on the infrastructure bill intended to be the hallmark legislation of the Biden presidency.
There are 535 members of Congress, but two held the most sway: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona.
The political game of chicken between House progressives and moderates was dependent upon these two senators. Their votes are needed for the larger package to get through the Senate through reconciliation, which requires every single democratic vote, as well as that of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Manchin released a statement earlier in the week saying: “I can’t support $3.5 trillion more in spending when we have already spent $5.4 trillion since last March. At some point, all of us, regardless of party must ask the simple question— how much is enough? What I have made clear to the president and Democratic leaders is that spending trillions more on new and expanded government programs, when we can’t even pay for the essential social programs, like social security and medicare, is the definition of fiscal insanity.”
Sinema held her cards closer to the vest, tweeting that in August, she had shared her detailed concerns and priorities —including dollar figures— with President Biden and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
This week, Biden and his aides met with Sinema four times in just one day.
For their attempts to grapple with the actual numbers and cost, each incurred the wrath of the party’s more progressive elements.
But Manchin and Sinema are deserving of our commendation, not our criticism.
Their refusal to simply fall in line and instead exhibit some independence is both a rarity in Washington and a reflection of their diverse constituencies.
Consider the composition of Sinema’s Arizona constituents. They are pretty evenly divided between Rs, Ds, and Is.
The same holds true for Manchin, who represents a state where Donald Trump won by nearly 39 points. In West Virginia, Rs outnumber Ds and independents make up about one-fifth of the population.
Moreover, who wouldn’t want what’s in the so-called “Build Back Better” plan?
The question is whether we can afford it.
There really hasn’t been a serious conversation about the nation’s debt and deficit since the co-called Simpson-Bowles commission —created by President Obama to identify “policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run”— failed to gain traction in 2010.
But that doesn’t mean the issue has gone away.
Our national debt is currently 28.8 trillion dollars. That’s over 86 thousand dollars for every single person in America.
From our first President George Washington until our 42nd president (Bill Clinton) —a span of 211 years— the United States accumulated 5 trillion dollars of national debt. During the administration of President George W. Bush, the national debt grew from 5 trillion to 11 trillion.
Then, under President Barack Obama, the national debt jumped from 11 trillion to 20 trillion.
And in the one term of President Donald Trump, the national debt grew from 20 trillion to nearly 28 trillion.
Bernie didn’t win the election. Biden did.
No wonder the Wall Street Journal said: “Democrats may be angry, but as the days go by they may recognize that Mr. Manchin is doing them a favor. With President Biden abdicating to the left, the West Virginian is providing a reality check on progressive excess.”
The power held by Manchin and Sinema reminds me of the Fulcrum Project, an idea from a centrist, independent group called Unite America. Board member Neal Simon, himself a former Senate candidate, has often said that the power in the Senate could be wielded by a handful of independent thinkers.
Imagine, for example, if Manchin and Sinema were to join forces with Senator Lisa Murkowski and another republican or two.
If such a group were to deny both parties a majority and commit to sticking together, they could dictate what gets to the floor, who is the majority leader, and fashion moderate solutions to big problems.
That would be a great day for the country.
Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.