Earlier this week, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema bailed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell out in an unwinnable fight to get Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to commit to preserving the filibuster for the next two years.
Manchin and Sinema, two of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus, both flatly denied that they would ever vote to kill the filibuster, an archaic procedural move that essentially gives the Senate minority a veto over most bills that come through the chamber. McConnell had been holding up an "organizing resolution" on the Senate's governing rules for this congressional term, saying that he wouldn't budge until Schumer agreed to keep the filibuster intact.
A Sinema spokesperson told the Washington Post that she's “against eliminating the filibuster, and she is not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster," and Manchin emphatically told Politico that he wouldn't vote to get rid of the tool that was used to block the Civil Rights Act for nearly three months, not to mention a plethora of other horrible shit. Via Politico:
“If I haven’t said it very plain, maybe Sen. McConnell hasn’t understood, I want to basically say it for you. That I will not vote in this Congress, that’s two years, right? I will not vote” to change the filibuster, Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in an interview on Monday afternoon. “And I hope with that guarantee in place he will work in a much more amicable way.”
Some Democrats say if Republicans block Democrats’ priorities, it’s worth preserving the ability to change the rules later. Asked if there is any scenario that would change his mind, he replied: “None whatsoever that I will vote to get rid of the filibuster.”
With that, McConnell dropped his demand, saying that Manchin and Sinema "agree with President [Joe] Biden’s and my view that no Senate majority should destroy the right of future minorities of both parties to help shape legislation."
This isn't actually a win for McConnell; a win would be Schumer acquiescing to his demand, which to Schumer's credit, he didn't. But Manchin and Sinema saying they aren't going to budge on the filibuster when it comes to something as basic as letting their own party take control of the Senate majority they won earlier this month is not a great sign for the next two years.
Neither was a recent meeting between the White House and a group of 16 centrist Senators, including eight Democrats, whose top priority on Biden's relief bill appears to be watering it down. Just look at this incredible quote from Sen. Angus King of Maine (an independent who caucuses with the Democrats but not in the Bernie way) as reported by Axios:
"If you were just listening on the call, I don't think you would have been able to tell who were the Republicans and who were Democrats and who were independents," said King.
That's not a good thing by any stretch of the imagination.
What do Manchin, Sinema, King, Virginia's Mark Warner, and other centrist lawmakers actually want? It's not a huge influx of spending in their states, which became a mini-meme about Manchin after Democrats won the Senate. It sure as hell isn't a better chance of winning, as enfranchising D.C. (and possibly Puerto Rico, though Puerto Ricans need to make that call) and an expansion of voting rights that the GOP universally opposes would do.
It's not even power; Manchin and Sinema would have more power, not less, to extract concessions from a Democratic majority that relied on their votes to pass things rather than turning to the 10 Republicans needed to break a filibuster in this Congress. And by not forcing McConnell's hand on the organizing resolution, Manchin was only delaying his own elevation to chair of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
All of these centrist Democrats ran as moderate independents, King more literally than the others. Sinema insisted that she wouldn't vote for Schumer as majority leader before she even won her primary, though she eventually dropped that line.
At this point, the only logical conclusion is that all of these people are seeking an affirmation of their political identity as the Adults in the Room, the ones who pull the liberals back from the ledge of doing anything objectively good. Sorry to everyone who has to choose which utility bill they can pay this month, but there's a narrative to protect here.
It would be a mistake to treat all of this as good-faith policy differences targeted versus universal relief or an institutional argument about the filibuster, rather than the cynical, selfish posturing it is. There's no Gang of 16 or "Sweet 16," as Axios annoyingly dubbed them; there's eight Republicans who want to kill Biden's agenda and then blame him for the economic catastrophe, and then there's eight Democrats who are willing to help them do it just so they can be recognized as the reasonable Democrats.
None of this is about the specifics of any policy. It's about being able to say you talked to a Republican and watered down legislation for no reason other than that it's what supposedly looks right, because only far-left fanatics think that helping people is more important than having a cordial relationship with your good friend John Cornyn.
These politicians might portray themselves as the ultimate dealmakers, the ones who will grease the wheels of a recalcitrant legislature and bring about a glorious reign of imperfect but still noble compromises on behalf of the regular folks out there. In reality, they're a Do Nothing Caucus, a group of cynical scammers more concerned with the praise they'll get on CNN than with actually improving the lives of their constituents.
No normal person cares about how many Republican votes your pandemic relief bill got as long as it passes, and they care about Senate procedure even less. What they do care about is whether or not you did what you said you were going to do. And if you don't keep your promises, you can't blame people for telling you to kick rocks the next time you're knocking on their door to ask for their vote.