Moderate Democrats Hold Power In Divided Senate, Splitting Party Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are the most prominent moderates to oppose elements of President Biden's agenda, but they are likely not alone.

Moderate Democrats Flex Their Power In The Senate, Making Progressives Impatient

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A bipartisan group in the Senate says they've reached a deal on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $579 billion in new spending. Party leaders have yet to weigh in on the plan, but the deal is the latest sign of moderate Democrats flexing their power in a closely divided Washington. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following this story and joins us now. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

MCCAMMON: So, first of all, what do we know about what's in this new deal on infrastructure?

SNELL: Well, I guess to start with, there were 10 senators, five from each party, who worked on this. And they were led by Republican Mitt Romney of Utah and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat. You know, they say that they have an agreement on a framework for an eight-year spending plan that would not include any tax hikes. But that's basically all we know except for the top-line figures. You know, it is certainly progress from where things stood earlier in the week where we saw talks between the White House and Republican Shelley Moore Capito completely fall apart. But we really don't know if party leaders in the Senate will take it or like it or if enough senators will get behind the plan. We do know the White House was briefed last night. But deputy press secretary Andrew Bates put out a statement saying there are still questions about policy and how to pay for it. So big questions there.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. And aside from Sinema, who you mentioned, we've heard a lot about West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, of course, as the main voice for moderates. Tell us about who else is a potential roadblock for Biden's plans.

SNELL: You know, it depends on the issue, and that's kind of part of why it's hard to navigate for party leaders and for Biden. You know, the senators who oppose some gun control measures aren't exactly the same ones who might oppose, say, raising taxes for infrastructure spending. When it comes to the filibuster, which is another major question here, so far, we've really only heard from Manchin and Sinema saying they absolutely will not do away with the filibuster. Others like Arizona freshman Mark Kelly and Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire have avoided taking a firm position. Sometimes they say they're open to some nebulous reforms. You know, if you look at the states that these senators represent, they're kind of swing states or states that have generally voted for Republicans for statewide offices. And, you know, they answer to voters who are just not monolithic. And they are having to take out positions that are, you know, very different from what some of the progressives in their party would like to see and would like to say Democrats all represent.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Speaking of the progressives, there's a lot of pressure from progressive Democrats in Congress to follow through on Biden's promises in this regard. How are other Dems feeling about this?

SNELL: You know, some Democrats tell me they think that it's counterproductive to try to force the hand of particularly Manchin. You know, they - it would be hard to find a single Senate Democrat who is even surprised by how Manchin is handling this. I think Delaware Senator Chris Coons described it the way most of his colleagues would.


CHRIS COONS: Joe Manchin, since he got here - and we were sworn in on the same day - has been the most centrist Democrat of our caucus and has insisted on bipartisanship as much as is possible. That is something that's been consistent about Joe for a decade.

SNELL: You can hear there I caught up with him in the halls in the Capitol, and a bunch of reporters were trying to kind of get a handle on how do you understand Joe Manchin? And, you know, they say there is frustration among progressives, in the House in particular, but they have different political constituencies than senators do. And this is exactly why there's no room for error for Biden. He can't cave to moderates in the Senate and then hope the same legislation that satisfies them can pass in the House, where there's just a bigger, more powerful progressive wing and, you know, a fairly sizable moderate wing there, too. It is just a very, very narrow opening for success.

MCCAMMON: And what does that mean for Biden's larger agenda?

SNELL: You know, under Senate rules, you need 60 votes to clear your filibuster. So even if you had all 50 Democrats on the same page, you'd still need 10 Republicans to agree to anything. And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's going to try to stop Biden 100%. So that leaves most Senate Democrats thinking about getting rid of the filibuster. And like we said, we can't - they can't go through with that if Manchin and Sinema refuse to go along with the plan. They need every Democrat to feel like the party has been trying to get a deal with Republicans before they can move on and accept that they have to figure it all out on their own.

MCCAMMON: It is still always infrastructure week. Thanks so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

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