The Senate’s power brokers

Neera Tanden, nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Photo by Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

November’s election brought the government under the full control of the Democrats, but not by much. Because of the 50-50 split, any Senate Democrat can join with Republicans to defeat a Democratic agenda item or to vote down a priority of President Joe Biden.

So it is with Sen. Joe Manchin, a “dark purple” Democrat from West Virginia, who is the Senate Democrat at the figurative “center” of American politics. Whether because he is a bit of a maverick or because he is adept at leveraging his otherwise weak hand, Manchin has become a pivotal senator in the confirmation process for several Biden Cabinet nominees.

For example, Neera Tanden could be the first woman of color to serve as Office of Management and Budget director, if her nomination is confirmed. But Tanden, president and CEO of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, left a Twitter trail (now removed) in which she castigated members of Congress in both parties. Manchin announced he will vote against her nomination, citing her barbed tweets. He could join a unified Republican contingent that is eager to defeat the nomination of Tanden, who was an aide to Hillary Clinton.

Some Republicans are quite clear about the reason for their opposition: For example, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said: “I think there is concern by both Republicans and Democrats that she will be overtly political and that her allegiance is not to America and it’s not to President Biden. It is to Secretary [Hillary] Clinton.”

We aren’t at all moved by that stale critique. Indeed, we suggest that someone remind Kennedy that we are now five years beyond the Trump-Clinton race, and point out the hypocrisy of criticizing Tanden for her tweets while continuing to forgive the online excesses of the former Tweet Abuser in Chief.

Nonetheless, arguments like Kennedy’s could matter to Manchin and other more conservative Democrats, like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana, who now play a pivotal role. Whether they lean right or left will determine the vote. “Each and every one of these members has the ability to be the king- or queen-maker on Capitol Hill,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “If they stick together, and flex their muscles — especially given the tight margins in both the House and the Senate — they can have a real impact.”

Republicans are also looking to Manchin to help defeat the nomination of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for health and human services secretary. Becerra’s support of abortion rights and Obamacare are anathema to his Republican opposition. So, on the Democrat side, strategists hope to entice Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowsky (Alaska) or even Mitt Romney (Utah) to substitute for potential Democratic defectors.

Each of these “fence-sitters” has outsized influence in the Senate, which makes the math behind 50-50 more complicated than it seems.

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