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A Single Centrist Senator Can Have Significant Influence In Today's Congress


Democrats may hold a majority in the House and control of the Senate, but they cannot pass their $1.9 trillion aid package without some last-minute wrangling inside their own party. Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, single-handedly forced changes over the weekend to the unemployment insurance part of the bill, a vivid illustration of the outsized influence of a single senator, a single moderate senator, in a narrowly divided Congress. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell joins us.

Hey, Kelsey.


KELLY: So big showdown with Joe Manchin this weekend. But he is not the only centrist/moderate senator with a lot of sway right now. Who else are we talking about?

SNELL: There's a lot of focus right now on moderates in the Senate - that's Joe Manchin of West Virginia; Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona; Angus King, who is an independent of Maine but caucuses with the Democrats; and even Chris Coons of Delaware. There's kind of a floating group of them and - but Manchin is the most out front in a lot of ways. He describes himself as a lifelong centrist who doesn't want to get bogged down in tribalism and isn't going to change just because Democrats control the House, the Senate and the White House.

There's a strong contingent in the House, too. You know, moderates won tough districts in 2018, and that is what delivered them a majority in the House. Their ranks are smaller today, but their votes are still important in the House, where things are also still fairly narrow.

KELLY: And how narrow? I mean, how much power do centrists like Manchin in the Senate or moderates in the House, how much power do they wield?

SNELL: Well, right now, Manchin has a lot of power. Centrists in the Senate have a lot of power. And Manchin himself got a lot of changes to this bill that even some other moderates didn't love, particularly a reduction in the amount of weekly federal unemployment benefits. You know, Manchin says the changes to unemployment were essentially things he worked out with Republican centrists on the sidelines and then brought to Senate leaders as they were trying to finalize the bill. Here's how he described his approach to legislating on ABC's "This Week."


JOE MANCHIN: I look for that moderate middle. The common sense that comes with the moderate middle is who I am. That's what people expect.

SNELL: His vote really counts on this bill because it was a question of needing 50 votes to pass...

KELLY: Right.

SNELL: ...Which meant Democrats needed to be unanimous. But for virtually every other bill going forward, they'll need 60 votes. So Manchin won't always be the hair trigger he was this past weekend.

KELLY: Although, I have been watching with interest some of the grumbling that has emerged in recent days from Democrats, for example, who are farther to the left than Senator Manchin saying, look, that this guy is emerging as a one-man blockade against priorities that they would like to get through, things like the $15 minimum wage. Is that fair, Kelsey?

SNELL: Manchin does oppose the $15 minimum wage, as does Kyrsten Sinema. And they're the two most vocally and publicly opposed to it. But they want a lower figure, not all the way to $15. They're OK with increasing the minimum wage.

But they're not the only ones who said no. Seven in the Democratic caucus voted against it this weekend. In some ways, Manchin has been willing to be the guy who gets attacked by the left. And he's kind of made the public face of opposition to some of these policies because it's really good politics for him back home in a red state. And it's convenient in some ways because it gives other Democrats who might agree with him political cover to either say nothing or vote the other way.

KELLY: Although, can we circle back to the point you made about - that for just about every bill going forward, they're going to need 60 votes to get something done? I'm wondering how that bodes for bills on issues like immigration, like infrastructure, that can be very partisan.

SNELL: Well, some Democrats say that they'll just have to work out a bipartisan agreement on those. But there's also an alternative here, which is they could get rid of the filibuster. A lot of Democrats already want to do that. Moderates in general have been opposed to the idea, but that could change if Republicans decide to try to block everything that Biden wants to do.

KELLY: NPR's Kelsey Snell, thank you very much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.