In June, Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled a roughly $6 trillion proposal for a budget reconciliation bill that Democrats could move forward without any Republican support. The bill included aggressive climate measures and a plethora of social programs like free community college and universal pre-K.
This proposal didn’t last too long. In mere weeks, negotiations within the Senate Budget Committee narrowed the top line spending amount for the bill to $3.5 trillion.
As Democrats have finalized a version of the proposal that could pass both chambers, moderates Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have demanded the price tag be brought down even further to around $1.75 trillion. Free community college has been dropped and climate change programs have been watered down. As Democrats only control the Senate with 50 seats and the tie-breaking vote of the vice president, both votes are necessary to pass partisan legislation. While Manchin and Sinema are to blame for cutting down this major bill, Democrats shouldn’t despair. They should be grateful for what Joe Manchin has allowed them to accomplish in Congress given the alternative of a Republican controlled Senate.
Considering the partisan status of West Virginia, Manchin’s very presence is nothing short of miraculous. In 2020, Donald Trump won West Virginia by 38.9%. Manchin won by 3.3% in 2018. A 42% party split is practically unheard of in today’s partisan political environment, where most people vote for the same party. A different type of Democrat, in a state like West Virginia, would have fared far worse. In fact, Manchin’s more progressive 2018 primary opponent Paula Jean Swearengin was the Senate nominee in 2020 and lost by 43.3%. Clearly, Manchin is the most liberal Senator Democrats can get out of West Virginia. But, some argue, if Manchin is just going to obstruct the Democratic agenda, what’s the point of him being there, even if he is an electoral unicorn?
Consider an alternate timeline in which Manchin drifted too far to the left in his 2018 re-election bid and lost to his GOP opponent Patrick Morrisey, attorney general of West Virginia. Assuming everything else played out the same way from this point, Democrats would have 49 Senate seats today. This one seat would make Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Senate Majority Leader during the opening years of Biden’s presidency. As Majority Leader, McConnell would then control the Senate floor, and be able to decide what nominations and legislation came to the floor.
We don’t need to just speculate about the prospect of a GOP Senate majority. We’ve seen how McConnell and Senate Republicans planned to run the chamber in the first two years of the Biden administration. In the days immediately following the 2020 election, Republican senators publicly considered which of Biden’s nominees would be acceptable for floor consideration, if any.
McConnell used this playbook during the Obama administration, leaving open hundreds of government positions, particularly judicial nominations. Since Manchin won, Democrats have used their majority to staff the government with progressive nominees like Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra. Under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate has confirmed Biden’s federal judicial nominations faster than any president’s nominations since Richard Nixon.
With the majority, Democrats control Senate committee chairmanships and Leader Schumer is able to select what bills are considered on the floor. In 2019, McConnell bragged that he would be the “grim reaper” for progressive legislation passed by the House, making sure nothing he considered socialist ever received as much as a vote in the Senate. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which passed without a single GOP vote, would have almost certainly been scrapped in favor of a far narrower relief plan if the GOP held the majority. While Democrats may have gripes with Manchin’s demands, any party line legislation, no matter the size, wouldn’t have been possible without him.
Of course, this is of little comfort to Democrats who believe that winning a Senate majority presents a historic opportunity to enact big change. A $1.75 trillion bill obviously cannot accomplish what could have been done with $3.5 trillion. But 50 Senate seats aren’t 53 seats either. A Senate divided evenly means that every single member of the Democratic caucus, including Manchin, has to be on board to pass legislation without Republican support. If that makes the bill $1.75 trillion instead of $3.5 trillion, Democrats are going to have to live with that. For critical issues that weren’t GOP priorities — child care, climate change and health care — there would be no question of how much for a Republican Senate, there would simply be nothing.
If Democrats want to expand their ambitions, they need to elect more Democratic senators. Yet, Republicans enjoy an institutional advantage in Senate elections, posing a challenge for Democrats wanting to cinch a Senate majority. Each state gets two senators, meaning a highly populated state like New York receives the same number of Senate seats as a sparsely populated state like South Dakota. As such, the GOP benefits since Republicans are generally highly popular in rural areas, compared to Democrats who dominate in cities.
Political modeler David Shor has forecasted that even if Democrats win 51% of the two-party vote in 2022 and 2024, they would likely lose seven seats in the Senate. Democrats’ pathway to hold power in the face of institutional disadvantages is to elect more candidates who can win in red states, like Manchin. As pundit Matthew Yglesias points out, a 53-seat majority with Democrats in states that Trump won would give far less weight to the idiosyncrasies of any one senator like Manchin. Until then, Democrats will be subject to the whims of Joe Manchin. And that’s not too bad, considering what he gets them.
Daniel Matin (25C) is from Franklin, Tennessee.