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As Sanders and Manchin clash, Democratic leaders play it cool

Asked about the Vermont senator's insistence on $3.5 trillion in spending, Manchin replied: "God bless him."
Image: Senators Meet For Weekly Policy Luncheons On Capitol Hill
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont says $3.5 trillion is a minimum price tag in the Democrats' sweeping safety net package.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont says $3.5 trillion is a minimum price tag in the Democrats' sweeping safety net package.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia says that's too pricey for him.

If one of them doesn't blink, a centerpiece of President Joe Biden's agenda will fail.

A clash between the most liberal and most conservative Democrat in the 50-member Senate caucus has persisted for days, and neither is showing any sign of backing off their irreconcilable red lines as the House seeks to wrap up its committee work this week.

But Democratic leaders are staying above the fray — for now. They're letting the debate play out rather than intervening immediately to resolve it. And they're emphasizing the need to stick together.

"We're moving forward. There are going to be a lot of intense discussions and negotiations over the next few weeks," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters on Tuesday. "There are members of our caucus who want it higher than 3.5 [trillion], there are members of our caucus who want it lower than 3.5. We will have to come together."

"Every member of our caucus, with no exceptions, realizes our unity is our strength," he said.

How the dispute gets resolved remains unclear. But sources familiar with Democratic leaders' thinking say they will let committees advance the pieces of the bill; ultimately, when the task of finalizing it lands on their plate, they'll hash out a final negotiation to get a product that can pass both chambers.

Schumer spoke after a two-hour meeting between Senate Democrats where committee leaders discussed various pieces of the bill in their jurisdiction, according to senators in the room. It was a general discussion that didn't yield final agreement on contentious matters.

"We have a $3.5 trillion bill, which is enormously popular with the American people, and especially working class people," Sanders told NBC News. "We struggled hard to pass the American Rescue Plan which was enormously successful, and helping us get out of economic decline. I'm quite confident that at the end of the day, we're going to be passing a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill."

Manchin said Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press: "I cannot support $3.5 trillion."

He held to that position on Tuesday. Asked by reporters about Sanders' insistence on that level of spending, Manchin replied: "God bless him."

"Everybody knows my position," he said. "I’ve been very clear... I didn’t want anybody to say it was a surprise. So everybody knows pretty much where I am, so we’ll just continue to work through it."

One reason Democratic leaders aren't intervening yet is that Manchin hasn't named his price. The West Virginian hasn't said what spending policies he opposes in the emerging package, with one exception: He has rejected the 80 percent clean electricity standard. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., also hasn't said what price tag she would support, nor has she stated which provisions she opposes.

Clean energy policy will be one of the most contentious issues. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said other Democrats "are going to have to work with" Manchin to address the climate crisis in the package.

"We didn't reach any conclusions in this discussion," he said after the meeting.

Republicans, meanwhile, are grabbing popcorn as Democrats battle it out. “I’m kind of enjoying them go through all this high-wire act,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.

Party leaders want a clearer sense of their endgame before they start to negotiate down and find a resolution that can get the votes of all 50 Democratic senators and all but three House Democrats.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said the House will vote on a bill that can pass both chambers, which will likely force a bicameral negotiation at the highest level.

There are a host of competing demands in the House, too. Some lawmakers want to lift the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, and there are differences over prescription drug policy.

"I think we'll come together in the end," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del, a close Biden ally and friend. "I expect, just like the infrastructure bill, that this bill will be declared dead several times before it ultimately passes. But there's a lot of energy behind it."

"Now, resolving the details and the difference between what we can — that's going to be hard," he said. "We have some really hard choices to make."