“Everybody needs to focus on the election right before us, right now,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the party’s campaign arm. “I just continually tell our friends we need to stay focused on the next few months. There’s just so much at stake going forward, with the Biden administration and things we care deeply about.”
The centrist senators’ opposition to some of Democrats’ top priorities have significantly stressed their relationships with the national party for more than a year now, but the past two months have been especially brutal. Manchin shot down Biden’s $1.7 trillion domestic spending bill in December, then teamed with Sinema to block a change to the filibuster that would have allowed a sweeping elections package to pass with a simple majority.
Both senators supported that Voting Rights Act-focused bill, but not changing the Senate rules to pass it. The Arizona Democratic Party promptly censured Sinema, and progressive activists called for ridding both her and Manchin in 2024 primary races. Incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) opposed the Sinema censure and marveled Monday: “We’ve got people talking about an election in ‘24? So, I don’t get it.”
Fortunately for Democrats, they’re confident that the Supreme Court seat opening will amount to a much more simple exercise in party unity, a vote they can even win with Republican help. The easiest way to get there is by putting a stop to some of the infighting that’s plagued them for the past six months.
“We need to get work done. Right now. We’ve got Build Back Better still hanging in the balance. I want to work with all 50 Democrats and get something passed now,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Yet Sanders (I-Vt.) said on Monday he’s not backing down, despite the crucial role Sinema and Manchin will play in near future on Democrats’ agenda. He downplayed the possibility that backing primary challenges to the duo would alienate them at crucial moments on the Senate floor: “They’re big boys and big girls.”
It’s “not my job to tell Arizona or West Virginia what to do but if the people in those states want new leadership, I’d be prepared to support them,” Sanders added.
Asked about Sanders’ primary threats, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) replied: “It’s a free country. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Republicans went through a political mourning period in 2017 after failing to repeal Obamacare that laid bare similar internal stressors.
One GOP senator openly mulled punishing the three committee chairs who voted against the repeal bill on the floor, while former President Donald Trump demanded another try. That didn’t happen; instead, the GOP retrenched to pass tax cuts and then narrowly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The party lost the House that fall but kept the Senate, a prize that gave Republicans another Supreme Court justice and many other lifetime judicial appointments.
With smaller majorities and both House and Senate control in real doubt this fall, Democrats now need to recapture some real momentum in order to rewrite their party’s fortunes. That starts and ends with the senior senators from Arizona and West Virginia.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a brief interview on Monday that he’s confident all 50 Democrats will be there on the next high-court nominee, which Biden has pledged will be a Black woman: “We’ve had pretty good unity on judges. We’re going to work hard at it.”
“All the Democrats have voted for every single one of President Biden’s judicial nominees up to now. So I fully expect that that’s going to continue,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “I’m not focusing on what their state parties have done, et cetera. We have work to do.”
Sinema says she will “thoughtfully” assess the next nominee’s qualifications and legal views. Manchin notably opposed Neera Tanden’s nomination to be Biden’s budget director but said Biden’s considering “excellent” nominees for the high court and has urged a swift confirmation schedule.
“Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema have been pretty reliable votes for President Biden’s nominees. I don’t think it will be as fraught as Build Back Better and all that stuff,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the party whip during Trump’s first two years. “The Biden folks would like to change the subject and point to a winning issue for them.”
It’s a little easier to envision Democrats succeeding with a no-drama Supreme Court nomination at the moment, compared to resuscitation of the moribund Build Back Better bill. Manchin said Monday he still hasn’t had “any formal sitdown meetings” about the legislation.
As for the angst among progressives about him, Manchin observed: “I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to that, to be honest with you.”