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The Manchema veto: Biden looks to executive orders to bypass centrist duo's Senate roadblocks

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have opposed changing Senate filibuster rules to allow legislation to pass with a simple majority of 51 votes.

Published: May 10, 2022 8:51am

Updated: May 13, 2022 10:30am

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, referred to jointly as "Manchema," have time and again blocked President Biden's legislative agenda, forcing the president to look increasingly to inherently less secure executive orders ahead of the midterm elections. Examples of the Manchema veto include:

  • Build Back Better — Biden's signature social spending package, which originally came in at $3.5 trillion, was scaled back to $2 trillion in a bid to gain the support of moderates following discussions involving the White House, Manchin, Sinema and congressional leaders. The legislation contained new federal benefits, climate-related spending, and tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles. Sinema didn't publicly commit to voting for the legislation, while Manchin announced in December 2021 that he would oppose the spending package, citing record inflation.
  • Federalized election rules — The Democrats turned to sweeping federal overhaul of election rules as their next major legislative target. Two pieces of legislation were on the table: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Senate Republicans opposed nationalizing election rules, arguing that under the Constitution's Elections Clause state legislatures have primary responsibility for setting election rules, subject to ultimate congressional authority to override. The only way the Democrats could move the bills forward in the 50-50 Senate was to scrap the time-honored Senate filibuster — with its 60-vote threshold required to pass legislation — in favor of a simple majority-vote rule. Both Manchin and Sinema spoke out against discarding the filibuster, arguing that such a move would muzzle the minority party in the Senate. Following the pair's votes against abandoning the filibuster in January, Arizona Democrats censured Sinema.
  • Codifying abortion rights — After the leak of a draft Supreme Court majority opinion signaling the apparent impending demise of the court's Roe v. Wade precedent guaranteeing a constitutional right to abortion, Democrats began moving forward on a bill designed to codify abortion rights at the federal level. Titled the Women's Health Protection Act, the legislation was subject to the filibuster rule. As Manchin and Sinema remain opposed to eliminating the filibuster, Senate Democrats lacked the votes to pass the measure. In a Senate vote on Wednesday, Manchin voted against the bill while Sinema voted for it. Manchin also opposed a separate abortion rights bill in February. 

With Biden's agenda at a standstill about six months ahead of the midterm elections, the White House said the president is considering executive actions on a number of issues, including student debt cancellation, immigration reform and police reform. But executive orders are inherently unstable fallback options — vulnerable both to constitutional challenge on separation of powers grounds and executive revocation by a White House successor.

"There are a range of executive actions we're currently looking at — right?" said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki last Thursday. "We're looking at one on police reform. The president is certainly looking at steps he can take on student debt, and there are others we're looking at as well. 

"But at the same time, we're also looking to get the Bipartisan Innovation Act through. We're looking to see what can be done on a range of issues where we feel there is bipartisan support. And we're continuing to engage closely with Democrats in Congress about a reconciliation package to lower costs for the American people."

The details of a potential reconciliation spending package that could pass with just the votes of all 50 Democrats in the Senate and a majority vote in the Democratic-led House are still up in the air.

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