March 3, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Actually, conservative Senate Democrats are doing exactly what they are supposed to. Playing ball

Unlike the GOP, they are engaging the democratic process.

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On Saturday, the US House of Representatives passed a covid relief package totaling almost $2 trillion. The US Senate is taking up the bill this week. The upper chamber will probably send it to the president as-is, mostly,1 but for a major exception. It’s unlikely to contain provisions for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

That’s bad, but not as bad as some might have you believe. For one thing, the base wage is not $7.50 an hour everywhere in the country. As with many things, there exists a patchwork system of compensation with various rates even within states. (Local governments can set their own minimums as long as state governments allow it.) To be sure, working for the minimum here in New Haven is essentially working for free. The minimum goes farther, however, in cheap-living states like North Dakota and Idaho.

When a Republican president asks for money, the Democrats say yes. When a Democratic president asks for money, the Republicans say no. That’s the political reality. That’s the problem we all face. Who are you going to blame for that?

US Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, perhaps the most conservative Democrats, don’t support raising the federal rate in large part because they have little incentive to. West Virginia and Arizona, respectively, have minimum rates higher than the federal rate. To the extent they had any incentive, it vanished after the Senate parliamentarian, who adjudicates rules of the chamber, said minimum wage provisions did not meet the requirement needed to pass legislation with a simple majority, not a normal 60 votes.2

Some say, not unreasonably, that Manchin and Sinema are problems because they are conservative. (Manchin, I hasten to add, is the subject of rage-tweeting far more than Sinema is). The solution, some progressives say, is knocking them off. Take a page from the “Tea Party movement” and primary them out of existence, just as fascist Republicans primaried “moderate” GOP incumbents out of existence. That, to me, is interesting, even exciting, I confess, but in the end, beside the point. It may be true that being conservative is the problem, but the problem is probably less exciting. It’s about incentives. What are they willing to do and why are they willing to do it?

Before I go on, remember this important fact. Fifty-seven senators voted to convict Donald Trump of inciting insurrection against the United States government. That included Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (as well as Mitt Romney and six other Republicans.) Every single county in West Virginia went to the Republican candidate in 2020. Vast numbers of voters there no doubt believe the former president was robbed. Yet West Virginia’s senior senator voted to convict Trump of treason while the state’s junior senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, voted to acquit. Manchin might be too conservative to be willing to violate a Senate rule (when he didn’t have much incentive to begin with), but he’s not so ideological as to betray his country.

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I think that’s the proper place to begin thinking about his, and Sinema’s, political incentives. Both senators understand, as Kaitlin Byrd put it,3 that the Democrats are “the entire spectrum of rational politics in this country.” Wherever they go, so goes the United States. Moreover, both see clearly the stakes facing the new president and his administration. As the AP’s Alan Fram wrote: “Despite every Democrats’ huge leverage, because all their votes are needed, none has so far threatened to sink the [covid relief package] if they don’t get their way. All are aware of how that would rattle Biden’s presidency and Democrats’ ability to be productive during this Congress.”

Critics of Manchin and Sinema claim they aren’t playing ball, so we gotta get people in there who will. But Manchin, in particular, is playing ball for reasons principled as well as partisan. As Fram said, he could ruin everything if he wanted to. As I suggest, he could ruin everything and be rewarded for it back home. He’s not, though. Neither is Sinema. They are searching for ways to play ball. This is what you want from a political party. This is how a “spectrum of rational politics” continues to be rational.

That’s not to say desirable. The Post reported this morning that the president is giving in to conservative Democratic demands that $1,400 relief checks be “means-tested.” That means they will phase-out faster for higher income earners.4 Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis suspects in the end more people will have gotten Trump checks than Biden checks. That, like getting rid of provisions raising the minimum wage, is bad, but not as bad as some would have you think. Here’s what bad: When a Republican president asks for money, the Democrats say yes. When a Democratic president asks for money, the Republicans say no. Are we going to blame the people who are trying but coming up short in the attempt? Or are we going to blame the people who aren’t trying at all?

As for the minimum wage, there are other ways to get ’er done that have nothing to do with the Congress. As I said last week,5 the Biden administration has the authority and power to break up the monopolies that are funding the Republicans who are standing united against raising the minimum wage. What’s missing is political will but also a place to focus. Right now, the House Democrats who are still raising hell over the minimum wage are focusing all their attention on the Senate parliamentarian. That’s going to alienate people like Manchin, but I’m betting Manchin, given his patriotic record, would have no problem supporting a president doing a little trust-busting.

John Stoehr


See the second-to-last paragraph for details from the Post. USA Today reports that covid checks would phase out at $80,000, per agreement between Biden and Senate Democrats. Yes, that’s going to hurt some, but the vast majority of Americans will benefit.


The requirement pertains to rules regarding “budget reconciliation.” Normally, rules require a 60-vote supermajority to pass any legislation. That’s suspended for some budget items.


See first footnote for link to the USA Today report.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    The problem with Manchin and Sinema’s holding out on whatever issues they’ve selected is that it is not clear how their doing so benefits them either. You indicate there is no incentive to support the relief bill as is. But I can’t see their incentive not to. That’s why the austerity peacock label is appropriate. Manchin and Sinema stand a far better chance with their voters of being rewarded for not dickering over the highly popular relief bill than standing in the doorway on issues that I suspect have neither meaning nor impact on their voters. (Seriously, what benefit does a WV voter get out of means testing? And how much will it make a difference in the gladiatorial combat of a future campaign with a perpetually lying Republican party to claim “well, at least I got the COVID relief package means tested!” Seriously, that’s a selling point to a WV voter?)

    Of course, Biden could drive a very hard bargain in turn by extracting a public promise from Manchin and Sinema to break the filibuster on the voting rights bill that waits in the wings. Now that trade could be worth the exchange for all that austerity peacockiness.

  2. Cade on July 30, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    As a constituent of Joe Manchin, I’ll be upset with him when he actually does something substantial to hurt a real Democratic priority.

    Also, folks are awfully quick to forget what an absolute electoral miracle the single blue WV Senate seat is. Joe’s a thorn in the side sometimes, but when push came to shove he voted for Schumer and stripped McConnell of the gavel.

  3. Random on July 30, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    Stoehr: “The solution, some progressives say, is knocking them off. Take a page from the ‘Tea Party movement’ and primary them out of existence, just as fascist Republicans primaried ‘moderate’ GOP incumbents out of existence. That, to me, is interesting, even exciting, I confess, but in the end, beside the point.”

    Interesting? Exciting?

    Yeah, sure.

    Primary Manchin and Sinema and what winks out of existence is the Democrats’ tenuous Senate majority.

    Genius move /s/

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