One of the favorite tropes in Washington journalism is “Democrats in disarray.” It’s a much-recycled story line for a good reason: It’s often true. Compared to the overwhelmingly white and evangelical-dominated Republican Party, the Democrats are a very diverse coalition and very quick to fracture. Still, it’s a bit odd to see this narrative trotted out after the Democrats successfully passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, a major legislative achievement by any measure.
The Washington Post used the passage of the bill to argue that Democrats are deeply divided: “The relief act’s narrow slog through the 50-50 Senate revealed real disagreements between the Democratic Party’s liberal and centrist wings, as well as Biden’s instincts for procedure and bipartisanship. These and other disputes over the past week on issues ranging from the minimum wage to a new budget director also provided fresh warning signs for the rest of Biden’s priorities, which will require a unified Democratic Party and little room for error against Republican opposition.”
But focusing on the speed bumps on the path to passage while ignoring the size of the achievement misses the plot. Writing in Politico, veteran analyst Jeff Greenfield provides a better context:
When Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Democrats and their independent allies held 59 seats in the Senate, and when Al Franken finally claimed his seat months later, they had a supermajority of 60—enough to overcome a filibuster. But in order to hold those votes, the Obama Administration had to keep the cost of its Great Recession stimulus package under $1 trillion—an amount, his team later conceded, too small to trigger a robust recovery. Similarly, in order to get reluctant Democrats like Joe Lieberman to vote for the Affordable Care Act, the White House had to kill the public health-insurance option, which left progressive Democrats disheartened.
By comparison, Biden asked for a $1.9 trillion stimulus and got it, despite having a bare majority of 50 senators and Vice President Kamala Harris as tie-breaker. To be sure, the end result was marred slightly by the efforts of more moderate senators, especially Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to trim the package.
The main battle was over the proposed minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. This was first scuttled by the Senate’s parliamentarian, who arbitrates rules and decided the minimum wage didn’t meet the parameters set for a reconciliation bill. The Biden White House decided against trying to overrule the parliamentarian.
Senator Bernie Sanders’s push for a vote in the Senate revealed that seven Democrats and a Democrat-allied independent weren’t willing to vote for the $15 minimum. (In addition to all Republicans, the no voters were Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, and Jon Tester of Montana, along with Maine independent Angus King).
This is a disappointing result—but by no means the end of the fight. Sanders’s gambit has made all the senators who gave it the thumbs-down now vulnerable to protests from their Democratic voters, who support the minimum wage increase by large majorities. Manchin and the other holdouts are likely amenable to some minimum wage increase, even if not to $15. There are ways to make a minimum wage under $15 more attractive to progressives—by tying it to inflation, for example. On all these fronts, the battle continues.
The other area of contestation was unemployment insurance (UI). Here, Joe Manchin did have an impact, but one that is less than advertised. Jeff Stein of The Washington Post broke down the evolution of the UI top-up in these terms:
1/ Biden: $400/week through Sept
2/ House Ds: $400/week through August
3/ Senate Deal 1 (early today): $300/week through Sept. + up to $10K in tax forgiveness
4/ Senate Deal 2 w/ Manchin (just now): $300/week thru Sept. 6, + ~$10K tax forgiveness
The crucial point to understand is that the move from the second position (of House Democrats) to the third position (the first Senate deal) is essentially a wash. Going from $400 to $300 is a loss, but it is made up for by tax forgiveness. The final Manchin deal is a genuine trimming, cutting the top-up for three weeks of potential beneficiaries. Given the economic suffering, it’s a miserly move. But it’s a bad policy detail that pales besides the massive positive benefits of the stimulus bill as a whole.
Biden introduced a genuinely progressive stimulus, the most forthrightly Keynesian intervention since the 1960s. The basic framework of the stimulus was unchanged by Manchin’s fiddling. Bernie Sanders rightly took a victory lap, tweeting, “As Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, I am proud that we passed the American Rescue Plan, which, in my view, is the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history of this country.” Another progressive stalwart in the Senate, Sherrod Brown, said, “This is the best day I’ve had in the Senate.”
Sanders and Brown are justified in their pride. As New York magazine’s Eric Levitz notes, “Despite having only a 50-vote Senate majority, Democrats are about to pass a nearly $2 trillion bill that puts more than $7,600 into the bank account of the typical family of 4, establishes America’s first proper child allowance (on a temporary basis for now), makes ACA plans much more affordable, provides $27 billion in rental assistance, improves the left’s prospects for winning progressive reforms at the local level by leaving states in better fiscal health than they were pre-pandemic, and cuts poverty in the U.S. by one-third.”
There are excellent provisions in the bill that didn’t even get much public hearing. As The New York Times reports, the bill includes $86 billion to bail out “about 185 union pension plans that are so close to collapse that without the rescue, more than a million retired truck drivers, retail clerks, builders and others could be forced to forgo retirement income.”
Given all the positive aspects of the stimulus bill, Manchin’s tinkering, although annoying and detrimental, has to be seen as a small price to pay for a larger good.
Manchin’s actions have little policy logic or even ideological rationale. Rather, they are driven by his sense that as a Democrat representing a deep red-state, one that Donald Trump won by 40 percent, it is in his political interest to occasionally pick fights with the Democrats, whether those fights make sense or not.
Letting Manchin notch a few not very substantial victories is just the price of doing business. The Democrats are lucky he’s gotten his way on only minor points. Some are disappointed that he sank Neera Tanden’s nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget, but that is more than offset by having him on other votes (and not every progressive is crying tears over Tanden’s aborted nomination).
In the long run, Democrats might want to keep giving Manchin the occasional theatrical win as long as the bills he supports remain largely untouched. Manchin is even shifting on the crucial issue of filibuster reform, which will decide Biden’s ability to get most of his agenda passed.
If Manchin acts on filibuster reform as he did on the stimulus bill, Democrats will be in good shape to win lasting progressive victories.