Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the late Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. Jeffords gave us one of the few bright moments of 2001 when he left the Republican Party and became a Democrat. This flipped the Senate and gave the Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority until they lost it again in the 2002 midterms.
The 2000 election gave us a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie. Almost immediately Senate minority whip Harry Reid began looking for a disgruntled Repubican senator who might be flipped. He succeeded with Jeffords, a moderate whose disenchantment with the Repubican Party had been growing for years. CNN reported at the time:
Moderates don’t survive in the Republican Party without a thick skin. Over the years, the proud, laconic Jeffords had endured countless arm twistings, cold shoulders and petty slights for taking stands at odds with his party–against Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut and Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination, for the Clintons’ health-care reform, minimum-wage hikes and more money for the National Endowment for the Arts. But by last year, the hostility had begun to wear him down. He was chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a post that could be powerful in promoting his passion for schools, but conservative G.O.P. upstarts on the panel, such as New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, were constantly maneuvering to undercut Jeffords’ authority, doing things like convening private meetings of the committee’s Republicans and not inviting him. Jeffords complained to Lott, but the majority leader didn’t rein in the right-wingers.
Jeffords’s favored policies, such as education funding, were getting no respect from the “movement conservatism” Republicans aligning themselves with Bush and Cheney. He found himself butting heads with the “fiscal conservatives” who were determined to cut everything out of government but military spending. Oh, and it was more important to cut taxes than fund schools.
Angry over Jeffords’ opposition to Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan, Bush aides didn’t invite him to a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher, a minor slight of the kind Jeffords had grown used to over the years. Others were more serious. The Administration began hinting that a program aiding Vermont dairy farmers might be in jeopardy. Jeffords was getting the silent treatment in the Finance Committee, and Gregg [Judd Gregg, R-NH] announced that he would be “spearheading” the education bill for the G.O.P.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were being very, very nice to Jim Jeffords. At some point Harry Reid offered to step down as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee so that Jeffords could have the position, although it’s not clear whether this was before or after Jeffords committed to switch.
All this negotiating was being kept secret from the Republicans, somehow. Then, one day, Jeffords confessed to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) that he was thinking of switching parties. Snow immediately tried to alert the White House. And tried, and tried. White House chief of staff Andrew Card wasn’t available to return her call until the afternoon of the following day. And then, it was too late.
So here we are with another 50-50 Senate, and thank goodness the Vice President is a Democrat this time. But then there’s the Joe Manchin problem. Manchin is vowing to “never” vote to end the filibuster. He’s not the only holdout, but he’s the most visible one. All over social media I see people demanding that Manchin be “pressured” to go along with the program.
And I keep thinking of Jim Jeffords. I’m betting Chuck Schumer and a lot of other people are thinking about Jeffords. What are the chances Mitch and the boys aren’t dropping hints to Manchin about how welcome he’d be to their party? Pretty damn low, I’d say. I expect there’s only so far Manchin can be pushed before we end up with Mitch McConnell leading the Senate again. I expect a lot of legislation going forward will be written with Manchin’s parameters in mind.
Now I’m hearing that the Senate covid bill will likely scale back the direct checks for some people who got them before:
Under the plan passed by the House, individuals earning up to $75,000 per year and couples making up to $150,000 per year would qualify for the full $1,400 stimulus payment. The size of the payments then begins to scale down before zeroing out for individuals making $100,000 per year and couples making $200,000.Under the changes agreed to by Biden and Senate Democratic leadership, individuals earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 would still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit. However, the benefit would disappear for individuals earning more than $80,000 annually and couples earning more than $160,000.
It was always a little odd that it was moderates who wanted to make sure those at higher incomes didn’t get too much assistance, but the disagreement wasn’t so much about fairness and equity as it was about how aggressive Democrats should be in confronting the effects of the pandemic. Progressives wanted to do as much as possible, and moderates wanted to find ways to scale back the bill’s ambitions.
And since the checks are the most visible part of the bill, that was a good place for the moderates to come out for trimming it back. Never forget that moderate Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are always on the lookout for high-profile ways they can disagree with their party, which helps them sustain their reputation for independence.
But it’s also probably the case that had Biden wanted, he could have held firm on the House’s numbers and the moderate Democrats would have gone along in the end. It’s implausible to think that Manchin or Sinema would have torpedoed the entire relief bill over this relatively minor question.
See also Moderate Democrats Strip Stimulus Checks From Twelve Million Voters for No Reason.by Eric Levitz. “… what do Democrats gain at the cost of denying checks to 12 million potential 2022 voters? How much money did Joe Manchin ‘save’ the U.S. Treasury?” Levitz asks. And the answer is, it makes the relief package 0.63 percent cheaper.
And if I were in charge of coming up with a Manchin strategy, I honestly don’t know what I would do.