President Joe Biden has not yet appointed his ambassador to Israel. He has not selected key envoys to represent the United States to China, Russia or to the plum diplomatic postings of France, Italy or the Court of St. James. But before making those announcements, there may be another decision that will greatly serve his interests as well. Perhaps Biden should appoint Senator Joe Manchin as his ambassador to the Republican Party.
After the widely-covered meeting Biden had with ten Republican Senators early February to discuss his COVID-19 relief package, the White House seemed to have cut off diplomatic relations with the GOP. Buoyed by poll numbers showing overwhelming public support for the stimulus legislation, Biden’s advisors decided that while bipartisan backing for the bill would be helpful, it was not necessary for its passage. So they moved forward on a straight party-line vote, knowing that slim majorities in both houses would be sufficient for victory.
But neither party is a monolith. Centrist Democrats began to voice their concerns about the relief package, many of which reflected the objections that Republicans had raised with Biden in their February summit. As a result, Biden was forced to make several concessions to ensure unified Democratic support.
First to go was Biden’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Although many Republicans had indicated a willingness to raise the wage by a smaller amount, Biden’s all-or-nothing decision led a parliamentary ruling that removed any minimum wage component from the bill.
The more puzzling aspect of Biden’s strategy became apparent when several Democratic senators voted against the wage increase. Senators Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) got most of the attention, but no fewer than eight Democrats opposed the $15 proposal, and twelve senate Democrats declined to support a stand-alone bill the previous week on the same subject. Reasonable people can disagree on this issue, but when only 38 Democratic senators support the $15 option, brinksmanship might not have been the best approach.
Manchin’s role became clearer as other last-minute changes were made to the COVID-19 package. After the minimum wage hike was dropped, Manchin and other centrist Democrats forced a narrowing of eligibility for stimulus payments, fought to maintain unemployment benefits at current levels and sought more specific guidelines for state and local government aid. All of these asks had been Republican priorities as well. The bill that ultimately passed the Senate also included billions of dollars for rural health care and infrastructure projects, both of which greatly benefit GOP constituencies.
The result is that Biden has managed to achieve a bipartisan bill without any Republican support. After deciding not to negotiate with congressional Republicans early on, the White House ended up negotiating with Manchin and his allies on most of the same points. Had Biden come to similar agreements with the GOP, the relief legislation would have likely included a minimum wage increase (albeit a smaller one) and would have allowed him to claim the unifying victory he had called for during his campaign.
Biden has managed to achieve a bipartisan bill without any Republican support.
Make no mistake: Even with Manchin’s changes, the COVID-19 bill is still a testament to a liberal vision for expanded government. It represents the largest sum of domestic government spending and the most targeted expansion of aid to low-income Americans in more than fifty years. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tweeted that the legislation was “the most progressive bill he’s seen pass since he’s been here.” (Biden cited Sanders’s tweet in his own remarks after the bill passed.)
It’s possible that Biden could not have attracted sufficient Republican support even had he continued their meetings. But the concessions he made to Manchin raise the question as to whether nine-tenths of a loaf might have been enough for him to still achieve a historic accomplishment with support from both sides.
Further compromise wasn’t necessary this time. But Manchin has already promised he will not support Biden’s prized infrastructure proposal without Republican involvement, and similar upcoming intra-party challenges on priorities such as climate change, immigration and police reform might necessitate a different approach — one that will require Ambassador Manchin to broker talks between Biden and the GOP.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.