President Joe Biden told a crowd in Tulsa on Tuesday that it wasn’t exactly his fault that Congress wasn’t passing more of his agenda.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, why didn’t Biden get this done,” said Biden. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of, effectively, four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
(Sidebar: Terrific use of the third person there by Biden. Chris Cillizza approves.)
Now, Biden didn’t name any names. But, it’s pretty clear that the two senators he is referring to are Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
And, yes, there’s no question that Manchin and Sinema are the two most likely Democrats to side with Republicans when it comes to critical votes. Both senators are, for example, opposed to abolishing the legislative filibuster.
But is Biden right? Do Manchin and Sinema, as he said, “vote more with my Republican friends?”
Not really – although it’s worth noting that there’s no perfect measure.
VoteView, which analyzes the relatively liberal/moderate/conservative positioning of each senator in relation to one another, makes clear that while Manchin and Sinema are the most moderate of the 50 Democrats in the Senate in the 117th Congress, they are not all that close to having voted with Republicans more often. The most liberal Republican senator according to VoteView? Maine’s Susan Collins. (If you want more on how VoteView analyzes these votes, read this.) The same was true in the 116th Congress, with Manchin and Sinema (as well as Arkansas Sen. Doug Jones) the most conservative Democrats, but simply not all that close to the most liberal Republican, which, again, was Collins.
The latest bipartisan rankings by CQ Roll Call show that Manchin voted against his party’s majority 38.5% of the time in 2020 while Sinema did so 33.1% of the time. Which were the highest percentages among both Republicans and Democrats. But voting against your party a third of the time isn’t the same as voting with Republicans more than Democrats.
Heritage Action, a conservative group that rates members of Congress across an ideological spectrum, gives both Manchin and Sinema a 0% score so far in the 117th Congress. While Sinema also gets a 0% in the 116th Congress, Manchin got a 37%, which is higher than where Collins came in (18%).
Then there’s GovTrack, which “assigns a score to Members of Congress according to their legislative behavior by whether they sponsor and cosponsor overlapping sets of bills and resolutions with other Members of Congress.” (Important to note: Sponsoring a bill with members of the other party isn’t the same thing as voting with them.) GovTrack gives Sinema a .69 conservative score and Manchin a .59 conservative rating. That makes Sinema more “conservative” than Sen. Mitch McConnell (.64) and Sen. Rand Paul (.65) and roughly as conservative as Sen. Lindsey Graham (.70) when it comes to cosponsoring. So, yeah. Maybe not the most accurate way to understand how Congress works from an ideological perspective.
The reality of the modern Congress – and this is radically different from even 20 years ago – is that the ideological middle barely exists. Yes, Manchin, Sinema and Collins are the most centrist of their respective parties, but they are nowhere near the likes of long-gone names like John Chafee of Rhode Island, John Breaux of Louisiana and Zell Miller of Georgia, who were regularly siding with the opposition party on key votes.
Asked about Biden’s comments, White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted that the President was not criticizing Manchin or Sinema. (She reportedly said this with a straight face, which is, well, impressive.)
My (educated) guess is that Biden was simply using a bit of creative license on Manchin and Sinema on Tuesday. Talk of getting rid of the legislative filibuster has been very much in the news of late – with Manchin and Sinema making clear they still oppose doing so – and that’s likely what Biden had on his mind in Tulsa.
But the reality differs from Biden’s version of events: Manchin and Sinema may not be on board with every single Democratic priority, but they are still with Biden far more often than they’re against him.