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'How About Zero?' Closed Door Meetings Between Manchin and Sanders Have Reportedly Been Very Tense

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on Thursday indicated that he doesn't believe the goal laid out by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for there to be deal on the framework of the reconciliation package by Friday, according to Alexander Bolton for The Hill. The story doesn't end there, though. As Alayna Treene and Hans Nichols reported for Axios, Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) got "heated behind closed doors." It even got to the point during Wednesday's meeting where Manchin offered "how about zero?" 


As Treene and Nichols reported, citing fellow Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (DE) and Jon Tester (MT):

Why it matters: The disagreement, recounted to Axios by two senators in the room, underscores how far apart two key members remain as the Democratic Party tries to meet its deadline for reaching an agreement on a budget reconciliation framework by Friday.

  • It also shows that despite the "kumbaya meeting" between Manchin and Sanders on Monday — after which they posed together for photos — the two remain sharply divided.
  • Manchin's comfort level with zero as a final number — and his willingness to threaten Sanders with it publicly at Wednesday's lunch for Senate committee chairs — reveals a stark reality for Democratic negotiators: Manchin can control the final dollar amount.


Driving the news: Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, described the incident as "a difference in opinion."

  • "Joe said, 'I'm comfortable with nothing,' Bernie said, 'We need to do three-and-a-half [trillion dollars].' The truth is both of them are in different spots."
  • Manchin said, "I'm comfortable with zero," forming a "zero" with his thumb and index finger, Tester reiterated, saying he believes the West Virginia Democrat can live with himself if the Senate doesn't pass any of the president's $2 trillion to $3.5 trillion package.

Another witness, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said, "There was a vigorous, 10-minute discussion. Bernie said, '$6 trillion.'"

  • "[Manchin] said, 'We shouldn't do it at all,'" Coons recalled, himself making the goose-egg symbol as he recounted the conversation.

Tellingly, spokespersons for Manchin and Sanders both declined comment for the story. 

Bolton's reported for The Hill pointed to further confusion on the timeline for the agreement:

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) seemed puzzled that some Democrats think getting a framework deal by Friday is even possible.

“Where did you come up with tomorrow?” he asked. “It must be an aspiration.”

He described the talks as an “evolving situation.”

On Tuesday, Schumer said the caucus was unified behind the goal of getting an agreement by the weekend.

“There was universal, universal agreement in that room that we have to come to an agreement, and we got to get it done and want to get it done this week,” Schumer said after the Tuesday caucus lunch.

Manchin and Sanders have been at it before, making memorable headlines as they've traded barbs before. As I reported last week, Sen. Sanders called Manchin out by name in an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, an outlet in Manchin's state of West Virginia.

Not to be outdone, Manchin called Sanders out in a statement shared to Twitter, referring to him as "a self-declared Independent socialist." Manchin's larger point is one he's made repeatedly, that "Congress should proceed with caution on any additional spending and I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs."


When it comes to their price points in mind of the $3.5 trillion spending bill, Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has liked to remind that it had been $6 trillion. Manchin, meanwhile, has repeatedly said he has something more along the lines of $1.5 trillion in mind. 

At the beginning of a CNN townhall on Thursday in Baltimore, President Joe Biden danced around answering whether or not a deal is close at hand for his Build Back Better agenda. It took much prompting from host Anderson Cooper before answering that "I think so" when asked "are you close to a deal," and "I do think I'll get a deal" when Cooper prodded, again, "bottom line, do you think you'll eventually get a deal?"

As he took quite the amount of time to answer Cooper's question, Biden mentioned why he ran for president, one such reason being "to actually unite the country," as he acknowledged that "and everybody's been saying, 
well, that's crazy. You can't do it. If we can't eventually unite this country, we're in deep trouble."

The country is indeed "in deep trouble," including and especially when it comes to Biden's poll numbers. And, when it comes to the unity issue, a poll last month from the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent are not confident he "can bring the country closer together," with 37 percent being "not at all confident."


President Biden touted during the townhall that "I was relatively good at putting together deals," but so far this one has looked to be bust. His efforts in attempts for negotiating a deal on Build Back Better among House Democrats was very highly touted, but also largely useless.


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