“How about zero?” Manchin, Sanders get heated behind closed doors

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Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) squabbled behind closed doors Wednesday, with Manchin using a raised-fist goose egg to tell his colleague he can live without any of President Biden's social spending plan, Axios has learned.

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.

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  • 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.

  • Spokespersons for both Manchin and Sanders declined comment.

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.

  • He said Manchin continued, "This will contribute to inflation. We've already passed the American Rescue Plan. We should just pass the infrastructure bill and, you know, pause for six months."

Overall, Coons said, there was "significant progress" in the meeting about identifying the core issues remaining.

  • He said the parties also forged ahead with "figuring out which of our different committee chairs and caucus leaders have a role in getting those issues closed, and trying to get people to be to be direct."

  • Coons is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

Between the lines: Despite the senators' private bickering, both Tester and Coons said they're hopeful Democrats will strike an agreement on a top-line figure for the package by the end of Thursday.

  • Manchin isn't as optimistic.

  • "This is not gonna happen anytime soon, guys," he said Thursday afternoon.

  • “I don’t see that happening," he also told reporters.

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