Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are the two most prominent Democrats to support the notion that the Senate needs to pursue bipartisan legislation on virtually every front.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are the two most prominent Democrats to support the notion that the Senate needs to pursue bipartisan legislation on virtually every front.

Democrats who hoped that narrow control in Washington, D.C., would lead to a rush of votes to approve new progressive policies are facing a major roadblock — moderates in their own party.

Moderate Senate Democrats from Republican-leaning states and swing states are flexing the power that comes along with a 50-50 Senate, where every vote has the potential to make or break a bill.

Members of the small-but-mighty group worked this week with a handful of Republicans to reach an agreement on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure framework. Earlier this year, they won concessions in President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. And they stand as gatekeepers on the path for other major progressive priorities like voting rights legislation, immigration and possibly even infrastructure.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has become one of the leading moderates willing to work outside traditional leadership channels on issues such as border security and infrastructure. On the latter issue, she launched her own talks with Republicans, led by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, to form a 10-senator working group — even as top Senate Democrats began work on their own, entirely partisan, legislation.

The negotiation is the latest sign of the enormous influence a few senators can have in a closely divided Senate.

Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin are the two most prominent Democrats pushing the Senate to buck partisan plans and pursue bipartisan legislation on virtually every front. Manchin in particular has repeatedly said he will not agree to upend Senate rules to make it easier for Democrats to act on their own.

"I'm not ready to destroy our government," Manchin told reporters in the Capitol last month. "I think we'll come together. You have to have faith there's 10 good people."

Comments like those have drawn fire from progressive lawmakers in the House and activist groups who say Democrats were elected to lead the House, Senate and the White House and have responsibility to pass legislation that reflects the policies they promised voters in 2020.

Who are the moderates?

There is a small group of moderate Senate Democrats who have largely avoided choosing a side when it comes to eliminating the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to proceed on most legislation. But others object to partisan legislation on a case-by-case basis.

Swing-state freshman Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. — both up for reelection next year — are among the few who have refused a position on the filibuster in recent months.

Others, like Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Chris Coons, D-Del., Tom Carper, D-Del., and Angus King, I-Maine, all voted against instituting a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage. Others have quietly avoided commitments on legislation such as the For the People Voting Rights Act and the finer details of the negotiations on an infrastructure package.

Manchin and Sinema have given other Democrats who may share their views consistent political cover to dodge questions and refuse firm commitments on legislation. The razor-thin majority in the Senate means that as long as one Democrat is willing to publicly block a bill, nobody else has to join them unless they want to.

Progressive backlash

Progressive Democrats in the House, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both of New York, have been particularly frustrated watching fellow Democrats stand in the way of Biden's agenda.

They argue that Democrats need to respond to Republicans with the tactics and force that GOP senators used to block legislation under former President Barack Obama. Many point to comments Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made last month vowing to repeat that obstruction to block Biden's policies.

"One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," McConnell said at a press event in his home state of Kentucky. "We're confronted with severe challenges from a new administration, and a narrow majority of Democrats in the House and a 50-50 Senate to turn America into a socialist country, and that's 100% of my focus."

Bowman went so far as to call Manchin "the new Mitch McConnell" in a recent interview on CNN.

Most Senate Democrats say they aren't surprised that Manchin, in particular, is standing his ground. Coons, who is a close Biden ally, said Manchin has always been consistent in his approach.

"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," Coons said. "That is something that has been consistent about Joe for a decade."

Many Senate Democrats say privately that attempts to pressure Manchin and Sinema could be counterproductive. The two have publicly embraced their positions and haven't shied away from repeatedly defending them.

That's part of why Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is forcing votes in June to prove that Republicans will not go along with major parts of Biden's agenda. The Senate is set to take up everything from LGBTQ equality to paycheck fairness and voting rights.

Schumer told Democrats of the plan in a letter last month. He said bipartisanship has had limited success so far this year and Democrats have "seen the limits of bipartisanship and the resurgence of Republican obstructionism."

"Senate Democrats are doing everything we can to move legislation in a bipartisan way when and where the opportunity exists," Schumer wrote. "But we will not wait for months and months to pass meaningful legislation that delivers real results for the American people."

That tactic could also force the quiet objectors within the Democratic Party to come forward and join Manchin and Sinema in opposition to the progressive left.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.