The centrists of the Senate may be about to make their power play in the 50-50 chamber, controlled by the Democrats only due to Vice President Kamala Harris's tiebreaking vote.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, joined her Democratic colleague from West Virginia in opposition to President Biden's nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget on Monday. "Neera Tanden has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency," she said in a statement. "Her past actions have demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend. ... I will vote against confirming Ms. Tanden."
"Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin flexed his muscles in a closely divided Senate when his public opposition to Tanden's nomination started a chain reaction of opposition from moderate Republicans like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney," said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. "Progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders won't shed any tears if Joe Biden's choice for OMB director crashes and burns."
Sanders and his supporters were as much a target of Tanden's Twitter tirades as any Republican, which has led to uncomfortable moments as he now chairs the Senate Budget Committee, which has jurisdiction over her nomination. But it is the centrists who have mobilized against her and may block her from joining the Biden administration.
Other priorities loom where centrists are actively working against the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. This includes the $15 an hour federal minimum wage that Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, are against including in the COVID-19 relief package.
"If Manchin's opposition to the $15 minimum wage kills its inclusion in Biden's American Rescue Plan, that could provoke a reaction from progressives since it could be part of the bill that House Democrats could approve this week," Bannon said. "The failure of the minimum legislation could ignite an explosion from Sanders and other Senate progressives."
These fights could determine whether centrist Republicans and Democrats are the pivotal votes in the Senate as Biden has denied the most liberal elements of his party their preferred personnel appointments but given them much of what they want on policy. The president's selling point to suburban voters who normally cast their ballots for the GOP was that he is an institutionalist and centrist himself.
But Biden also promised much to the left wing of his party, and Sanders vowed to help the longtime Washington insider become the "most progressive president" since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Centrist Democrats, though small in number, have already stymied liberals on eliminating the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court, which no longer appear to be on Biden's early first-term agenda.
"The moderate forces in both parties represent the true ideological leanings of most Americans, while the political parties continue to drift further to the extremes," said Republican strategist Christian Ferry, who advised the Biden transition team on outreach to the GOP. "Most Americans, but perhaps not primary voters, will welcome them flexing their muscles today, tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future."
Still, Manchin supports a COVID-19 rescue package in the realm of $1.9 trillion and wants money for his state, which twice voted for former President Donald Trump by landslide margins. Some think he could gain concessions elsewhere and maintain his power as a Senate deal-maker rather than solely as an obstacle to his party's leftward drift.
In 2009, when Biden began as vice president under former President Barack Obama, centrist Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania bolted the GOP to give the Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate majority briefly. Specter had voted for Obama's stimulus package and faced a conservative primary challenger. Obama and Biden vowed to help Specter win the Democratic primary.
Specter's influence was short-lived. Republican Scott Brown won the special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts, once again knocking Democrats below 60 votes. Specter faced pressure to become a party-line Democrat in the upper chamber. And he ultimately lost the Democratic primary the following year.
The centrists of 2021 would undoubtedly like to avoid a similar fate. Collins has avoided serious conservative primary challengers and easily won reelection last year in a state Biden carried despite most public polls predicting she would lose. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska once lost a Republican primary to a conservative but then was reelected to the Senate as a write-in candidate.
On the other side of the aisle, Manchin survived a Trump-backed GOP challenger in a year when Republicans picked off other red-state Democrats. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, another red-state Democratic survivor of those midterm elections, called Manchin "the Democratic version of John McCain."
McCain sank one of the Trump administration's biggest legislative priorities in 2017, when he voted against a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Original Location: Big moment is here for Senate centrists to flex muscles