Dueling press conferences from Sens. Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders this week indicate that congressional Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings are still far apart when it comes to a budget deal.
Speaking briefly to reporters Wednesday morning, Manchin said he supported funding programs to help children and older Americans in addition to lowering the prices of prescription drugs. He also reiterated his willingness to reverse some of the tax cuts on wealthier Americans and corporations that were passed by Republicans and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017.
However, Manchin said he didn’t want to see the country turn into an “entitlement society,” a term he has used previously in discussing his problems with the budget deal.
“I’ve been very clear when it comes to who we are as a society, who we are as a nation, and why we are still the hope of the world,” the West Virginia Democrat said. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society. I think that we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society.”
Manchin added that he had been very clear that his preferred price tag for the budget is $1.5 trillion over 10 years — well below the initial $6 trillion proposal from progressives and the $3.5 trillion agreed to by Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, which Sanders chairs. The budget deal contains many of the White House’s legislative priorities, what President Biden calls the Build Back Better plan, on which he campaigned.
Progressives in the House have refused to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, negotiated by Manchin and other moderates from both parties, until a budget deal is agreed to. This has given progressives some degree of leverage in the negotiations, although Manchin — who represents one of the most conservative states in the country — has repeatedly said the current budget proposal is far too expensive to earn his vote.
Because the budget cannot pass without all 50 Senate Democrats being in agreement, the bill requires the sign-off of Manchin and fellow centrist Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Biden said earlier this week that he had 48 senators on board with his domestic agenda but needed two more, referring to Manchin and Sinema without directly stating their names.
A few hours after Manchin spoke with the press, Sanders’s team announced that he would be holding a press conference of his own. The Vermont progressive used that time to call for further specifics on what Manchin wanted in the bill and what exactly he meant by an “entitlement society.”
“Sen. Manchin talked today about not wanting to see our country become an entitlement society. I’m not exactly sure what he means by that,” Sanders said. “Is protecting working families and cutting childhood poverty an entitlement? Does Sen. Manchin think we should once again have one of the highest levels of child poverty of any country on earth?”
Sanders called on both Manchin and Sinema to provide specifics. "The time is long overdue for him to tell us with specificity — not generalities; we're beyond generalities ... what he wants and what he does not want, and explain that to the people of West Virginia," Sanders said, adding, “Sen. Sinema’s position has been that she does not ‘negotiate publicly.’ I don’t know what that means. We don’t know where she’s coming from.”
Sanders said it was unfair to ask “48 people to go down to where two people want.”
“I could in five minutes go to [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer ... and say, 'I can’t support this bill because you don’t have a Medicare for All provision in it.' But I’m not going to do that,” Sanders said. “My concern with Mr. Manchin is not so much what his views are — I disagree with them. But it is that it is wrong, it is really not playing fair, that one or two people think 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.”
“Sen. Manchin has a right to fight for his point of view,” Sanders said. “He has not only a right to be heard, he has a right to get some compromises — he’s a member of the Senate. But two people do not have the right to sabotage what 48 want and what the president of the United States wants. That to me is wrong.”
The situation appeared to escalate late Wednesday when emails that were leaked to Axios indicated that Sanders was reluctant to denounce recent protests against Sinema that included activists filming her in a bathroom at Arizona State University over the weekend. Sinema called the action “wholly inappropriate,” and it has been condemned by the White House.
But when an aide to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., tried to organize a statement among leading Senate Democrats denouncing the bathroom incident, Sanders’s office asked that language be included calling on Sinema to support the budget. Booker’s office declined, prompting a Sanders aide to say the Vermont senator would not sign on to the letter. The Sanders aide added that the letter should not say it came from the “Senate Democratic leadership team.”
Though progressives continue to complain that Manchin and Sinema have not been open about what they want in the budget, Axios reported Wednesday that the West Virginia senator wants Democrats to choose between three key pillars of the current budget proposal: an expanded child tax credit, paid family medical leave and subsidies for childcare.
The expanded child tax credit, which was enacted in the COVID-19 relief package passed in March, has already cut childhood poverty in the United States by 40 percent, according to experts. The country also lags far behind other nations in access to family leave and the amount spent on childcare.
In a statement responding to Sanders's press conference, Manchin said, "Respectfully, Sen. Sanders and I share very different political beliefs. As he and I have discussed, Sen. Sanders believes America should be moving towards an entitlement society, while I believe we should have a compassionate and rewarding society."
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