Two vulnerable Democrats running for reelection in red states are threatening to become thorns in President Biden’s side with their campaign seasons heating up as well as his own.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is up for reelection this cycle, has vowed to block the Biden administration’s nominees to Amtrak’s board of directors, while another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), has floated the idea he would vote to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, posing a threat to the president’s signature accomplishment.
You are reading: Manchin, Tester threaten to be thorns in Biden’s side
Together, they hold the keys to the party’s ability to retain the majority next year, and taking on Biden and top Democrats in their ruby-red states is considered a political winner for the two moderates.
“I think what you’re seeing is members doing what they should be doing, which is fighting for the priorities of their state,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I think at the end of the day, we’ve always found a way to get together and make sure we address everybody’s competing needs.”
Manchin, in a rare appearance on Fox News’s “Hannity” on Monday, threatened to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act on his own if the administration continued to “liberalize what we are supposed to invest in over the next 10 years,” adding that he would do “everything in my power to prevent that from happening.”
Though Manchin did not allude to it specifically, that could include implementing one of the Senate’s central powers — holding up key presidential nominations to a host of agencies and boards that fill out the federal government.
In the case of Tester, his blockade of Amtrak nominees stems from the lack of representation for Western states. He has noted that the bipartisan infrastructure law’s reconfiguration of the board calls for only four of the six members to be from states comprising the Northeast corridor. Instead, five of the nominees are from those states, with the only other individual nominated coming from Illinois.
The Montana Democrat told The Hill that he has received some blowback from back home over the lack of representation on the board, adding that he held off making the move until he felt he had to.
“Because I was hoping they’d pull them back and do it without me having to be a bad guy,” Tester said about the timing of his call.
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Tester said he has not talked to Biden about the situation but staffers have.
Manchin, Tester and Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) are the three incumbent Democrats who are facing the toughest reelection fights next year. Their strategy is likely to focus on what they’re doing for voters back home instead of national politics.
“It always helps you with voters when you show them that the only thing you’re doing in Washington is fighting for your home state, whether that’s in Montana or West Virginia,” said Jon Kott, a lobbyist who formerly served as a top Manchin aide. “It shows they’re literally willing to do whatever it takes to get their message through to whoever needs to hear it, whether that means the administration, leadership, whoever.
“They’re not here to be national Democrats or caucus Democrats,” he added.
The White House defended Biden’s choices to the Amtrak board; press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted the administration tries “to garner support for things that really matter not just to the president but to the American people as well.”
Biden, who announced his reelection campaign this week, has dealt with Manchin’s concerns over various far-left Democratic issues since the start of his presidency.
While the White House often stresses that Biden and Manchin get along, that’s not always appeared to play out in public.
The president did spearhead multiple bipartisan bills, from boosting infrastructure investments and the CHIPs and Science Act to curbing gun violence, in his first two years in office. And, he also used his party’s majority in the House and some political arm-twisting of moderate Senate Democrats to usher in Democratic-only legislation like the sweeping climate and tax bill.
That changes with the new House Republican majority, but also with the centrist Democrats in the Senate needing political cover in an election year.
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“I would guess this White House, heading into the election season, will be giving much less heartburn to moderate Democrats than it did in the first two years,” said John LaBombard, former communications director to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and a former aide to Tester.
So far in this Congress, Biden has angered progressive Democrats and sided with centrists and Republicans with moves like signing legislation to overturn a D.C. crime bill and approving an oil drilling venture, the Willow Project.
“Knowing how a lot of these folks operate, these are senators that know and understand in their bones that just playing to left wing Twitter and MSNBC viewers is not a winning strategy for them or for the Democratic party nationally,” said LaBombard, a senior vice president at Rokk Solutions.
“How is the rest of the party going to react? From the base all the way up to the White House, which has a balancing act to strike. Because it is a brutal map for us this cycle and just a daunting cycle for our party,” he said.
The Tester-Manchin duo will also have more chances to split with the administration in the coming weeks, headlined by Julie Su’s nomination to become Labor secretary, which Republicans are itching to tank. If Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) remains absent, Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote as Su is highly unlikely to win any GOP support.
According to reports, Manchin has indicated he has issues with her nomination. Tester met with her on Tuesday, telling reporters that the pair had a good meeting and that he’s “still processing” her nomination.
“I am straight up. No leaning,” Tester said.
Republicans are unanimously opposed to her largely due to her stance on independent contractors, the gig economy and her handling of California’s unemployment insurance program — $30 billion was lost by paying out fraudulent jobless benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manchin — in another split with the administration — also made news on Wednesday by voting with Republicans on a resolution of disapproval that would overturn Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would impose tighter emissions standards for trucks.
“They’re both running in states where their party’s very out of alignment with their constituency on a lot of issues,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill. “So I assume they’re going to try and get well on some issues and show that they are willing to cross over and support some things that the Republicans in their state might care about.”