Democratic Party establishment and grassroots turn the big guns on Sinema and Manchin

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Sens Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin at the US Capitol (Getty Images)

It was a brutal week for the Democratic Party’s various factions as it became clear ahead of Martin Luther King Jr Day that the passage of voting rights legislation remains unlikely thanks to two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

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As the president descended on Capitol Hill in an attempt to press the two on their resistance to alterations to the Senate’s filibuster rule, Ms Sinema took to the floor and delivered a speech outlining her continued refusal to make any changes to the rule even as unified Republican opposition means that passing legislation to combat gerrymandering and bills to restrict access to the polls with the rule intact is impossible.

In her address, she hammered her party as well as Republicans for contributing to a divide in American politics and society, and portrayed the filibuster rule (which requires 60 votes for much legislation to pass the upper chamber) as a means of requiring two-party consensus on issues.

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“I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” the senator told her colleagues.

She went on: “Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy.”

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In the days that have followed, much of the Democratic Party has turned its fire towards the pair with special attention given to Ms Sinema, whose speech was seen by some as a personal dismissal of President Joe Biden. Many argue that the pair are ignoring the political realities of the day, including the ongoing denigration of trust in America’s electoral systems and efforts to install loyalist state officials in roles overseeing elections being carried out by former President Donald Trump, who has never accepted his 2020 defeat to Mr Biden.

“It is hard to think of a stupider thing that could be said about the 60-vote threshold,” raged MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, a longtime liberal cable news fixture and former Senate aide.

“I have never, never heard a more contemptuous speech by a Democratic senator, than the one written by Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate staff and read by Sen Sinema on the Senate floor today,” he continued, adding that it was a “non-stop insult to the intelligence of everyone listening”.

Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 nominee for president, was uncharacteristically sharp in her own criticism of the pair, which she delivered via a tweet that named neither senator.

“MLK Jr. said: ‘I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,’” noted the former Secretary of State.

She then added, as if anyone was unclear on her meaning: “This is a subtweet.”

President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, was more measured in her words, but made clear that the White House was not giving up its efforts to lobby the pair.

“I think we’re going to keep fighting until the votes are had,” she told reporters on Friday.

The Independent has reached out to both Ms Sinema and Mr Manchin’s offices for comment.

The White House’s vow to keep pushing is likely to continue increasing the pressure being put on the pair by the White House’s allies on the Hill as well as from activist groups, who have become more vocal in recent weeks as many accept the coming weeks to be the endgame for progress on voting rights before the 2022 midterms.

Some of those activists were in Washington DC over the weekend as part of a student-led hunger strike led by UN-PAC, which halted amid talks between the White House and the senators in December but resumed with greater numbers last week as frustration mounts against them.

“This is about more rights, ensuring moral treatment, and searching for the existence of morals within our government,” quipped a young hunger-striking student from Morehouse College, a historically-Black college in Atlanta, Georgia, at the group’s press conference on Saturday.

Between that group and a second group of more than two dozen Black faith leaders from various congregations around the US who launched their own hunger strike earlier this month, there are now roughly 75 activists refusing food over the issue while thousands more have marched in DC and other cities calling for the legislation to pass.

It isn’t yet clear whether this pressure will lead to either senator backing down on the issue of filibuster reform, but the issue threatens to have significant electoral consequences for Democrats in general and perhaps the two senators in particular, and not merely because the bill’s effects won’t be felt before the midterm elections.

Black voters, whose importance to the Democratic Party voting coalition has always been understood but saw renewed significance in 2020 thanks to Mr Biden’s surprise win in Georgia, see the legislative effort to strengthen voter protections and access to the polls as a top issue for their communities, which have long been the target of racially-motivated gerrymandering efforts, particularly (but not exclusively) in the South.

The ongoing failure by Democrats to pass the bill named after the late Congressman John Lewis, a champion of civil rights in the Jim Crow South, has bitten into Mr Biden’s popularity with that demographic: a Quinnipiac poll released last week found the president’s approval rating among Black voters dropping from 78 per cent to 57 per cent since a previous poll was taken in April 2021.

Broadly speaking, that could mean serious problems for Democrats in the House and Senate seeking reelection this year, including Sen Raphael Warnock, a Black reverend and one of two Democrats to pull off narrow victories in Georgia’s Senate runoffs last year.

Ms Sinema herself also faces a quickly-emerging effort to recruit her primary challenger, though she is not up for re-election until 2024. A Twitter account called the “Primary Sinema Project” has more than 40,000 followers, and a Democratic congressman from the state has openly broached the possibility of challenging her in several interviews.

The congressman, Rep Ruben Gallego, laid out his own grievances with Ms Sinema most recently on CNN, where he told the news network that the senator’s views were inconsistent. Ms Sinema, unlike Mr Manchin, can be seen on video from 2010 rejecting the importance of the filibuster and the “false pressure” faced by the Senate to reach 60 votes on bills. Her office did not comment on the video after it was uncovered by Business Insider last year.

“The only consistency about Kyrsten Sinema’s roles and positions is inconsistency,” Mr Gallego told a CNN anchor, a nod to frustrations many in the House have expressed towards the Arizona senator.

He went on to add that he was not focused on 2024 yet, but got in another jab at his colleague on the issue of her not holding a town hall since her election in 2018.

“I’ll continue to have my open meetings, something that she should try to do once in a while.”

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