Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a longtime Democrat, now an independent known in recent years for his advocacy on behalf of the dark-money group No Labels, is urging Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to keep obstructing the Build Back Better legislation that has stalled in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
At a recent event promoting his new book, Lieberman reflected proudly on his actions from over a decade ago, when he worked to kill the public option during the Obama-era Affordable Care Act legislative debates. The move stopped what would have been a small but important step toward establishing universal health care.
“I stepped out on it because I felt strongly about it,” Lieberman said. “The White House did take it out as a result of my position.”
The former senator made the remarks Friday during a long, wide-ranging conversation with public radio network WAMC’s Joe Donahue on his new book “The Centrist Solution: How We Made Government Work and Can Make It Work Again.” During the chat, Lieberman discussed his role in ACA negotiations and his work with No Labels, which has sought to constrain the Build Back Better bill. The current makeup and hyperpartisan politics of the Senate give members of the ruling party outsize power in shaping legislation, but the razor-thin Democratic majority means that the party needs every member on board. “For people, let’s say on a more progressive or liberal side of the party, if they want to get anything done, they’ve got to get Manchin and Sinema,” Lieberman said.
There’s precedent. In 2009, as the pivotal 60th vote to defeat a filibuster, Lieberman was sought after by Democrats as an ally in the fight for the ACA. The Connecticut independent, who caucused with Democrats but had endorsed GOP Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, was a pivotal swing vote in a divided Senate that favored Democrats by a 60-40 margin by the summer of 2009. Republicans tried to turn Lieberman to their side in the wake of the 2008 election, but he ultimately rebuffed the attempts.
With Republicans pledging to filibuster any health care bill from Democrats and the ruling party unready then as now to blow up the procedural relic, it fell on the White House and Senate leadership to convince holdouts to vote for the bill. To Lieberman, the inclusion of a public option made the bill a “budget buster,” and not one he was willing to support.
Ultimately, Lieberman won the concession from the Obama administration and solidified his position as a villain of the liberal left in the late George W. Bush and early Obama years. “When it comes down to it, I like to think that I was the 60th vote that enabled the Senate to adopt Obamacare and get it done,” Lieberman said last week.
“But I did oppose the public option because to me, it was an attempt to get the foot in the door for national health insurance, which I thought would compromise the quality of health care in America,” he added.
In 2014, a year after leaving the Senate, Lieberman joined the centrist dark-money group No Labels, for which he now serves as co-chair. The group has fought to curtail the size and scope of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better domestic spending bill and has called for it to be separated from the bipartisan infrastructure bill — a move that would strip progressives of their leverage to pass the ambitious social spending legislation. “It looks like now they might adopt it,” Lieberman told WAMC of the infrastructure bill, “maybe this week or next week, and then move on to a compromise bill on the bigger one. And I think that would be the beginning of a breakthrough.”
On Monday, the No Labels official website echoed that message in a blog post recapping the state of play in Washington, stopping just short of calling to scrap the $1.75 trillion domestic spending plan completely. Instead, the group endorsed a two-track solution that pushed infrastructure forward and left Build Back Better spinning its wheels.
“The House can and should get infrastructure done,” the group wrote. “Both houses should take time to think about the rest.”
It’s a message that will run into trouble with progressives like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the Congressional Progressive Caucus whip. After Manchin threw up yet another hurdle to the process, declaring that he had not signed off on the framework of the social spending bill, Omar made it clear that her patience was at its limits. “We are not playing Manchin’s games anymore,” she tweeted Monday.
No Labels has been an enthusiastic and prominent supporter of right-wing Democrats working to stymie, if not outright kill, the social spending bill. In August, the dark-money group cut an ad celebrating the intransigence of nine House Democrats who attempted to force the vote on the infrastructure bill. While the tactic was a strategic failure — the bill still hasn’t come to a floor vote, more than two months after the group demanded immediate action — it paid off in a more literal sense. The cohort’s leader, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., has since raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from No Labels-linked donors, as have several of his allies.
Comparisons between Lieberman during the Obama administration and Manchin and Sinema during the Biden administration have become somewhat of a cliché in recent weeks as the two right-wing Democrats have relentlessly cut the social spending bill down to a top line of $1.75 trillion, less than half the already compromised $3.5 trillion price tag. Lieberman told WAMC that because “sometimes all it takes is one or two votes” to get legislation passed, Manchin and Sinema should do what they can to affect the bill’s final form as much as possible.
It’s not advice they needed to hear — Sinema and Manchin have both worked to water down the bill and protect their respective pet interests. In Manchin’s case, that means a focus on providing continuing opportunities for fossil fuel extraction and harsh means testing for social programs. For Sinema, as near as anyone can tell, that means keeping wealthy Americans from paying more in taxes and ensuring that the bill does as little as possible to disrupt the rapacious capital interests that pour money into her campaign coffers.
The behavior of the two senators has members of their own caucus tearing out their hair. Any compromise is still a moving target with demands and declarations from the pair changing by the day and often contradicting one another.
But for Lieberman, a cheerleader for the pair and for the kind of line-in-the-sand negotiation style they’re deploying, the tactic is just as valid now as it was in 2010. The back-and-forth over the ACA would consume the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Democrats would not hold both chambers of Congress and the White House again until January 2021.
“The centrists are going to play a bigger role — if they want,” Lieberman said. “And everybody else just has to accept that if they want to get something done.”