Ever since the bill formerly known as Build Back Better first sprang into existence about a year ago, a number of D.C. journalists, including at such august institutions as The New York Times, coined the term “Manchinema” (and, alternatively, “Sinemanchin”) to describe the disruptive Democratic duo of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in an almost Bennifer-esque sort of way, as they aligned in their shared desire to nuke Biden’s signature legislation. During that time, they were portrayed as members of a rom-comesque buddy comedy that paired a 74-year-old, boat-dwelling, Sunday-show-mugging coal millionaire with a 46-year-old political chameleon, bisexual oenophile from the Sun Belt who wore purple wigs and thigh-high boots and was obsessed with solidcore and Ironman competitions.
Not surprisingly, this was, of course, a massive oversimplification and an incorrect lumping together of two very different, and largely misunderstood characters. Personality-wise, the two are practically antithetical. While they both crave being the center of attention, they have vastly different approaches. Sinema takes herself seriously and is constantly endeavoring to be substantive, showing up to meetings prepared with spreadsheets, data points, and typically thoughtful questions. She ducks the Capitol Hill press in a manner that makes it appear that she is terrified of them, whereas Manchin will often hold court with his favorite reporters.
Indeed, Manchin often appears uncomfortable when he’s not leading the conversation with his straight-from-the-gut takes and old-school political instincts. He fidgets and shakes his leg while he waits his turn to talk, before overpowering the conversation with wild gestures. “When the attention turns off him and goes on to someone else, he gets agitated,” one observer told me. “There’s definitely competitive tension between them.” But Manchin also knows how to turn on his college jock charm. When he’s not serving pizza and cocktails on his double-wide houseboat, he’s often spotted at soirees hosted by the French ambassador with his good friend, Steve Clemons, the Semafor editor-at-large.
So, long story short, it’s lazy and unfair to tie them together simply because they have thwarted Biden’s agenda. “Why everyone thinks the two have anything in common, I’ve never understood,” said a former Senate aide. As another aide put it: “He hates being lumped in with her.”
In fact, this is actually pretty well known on Capitol Hill, at least in a hush-hush way. “He doesn’t have anything in common with her,” said another former Senate staffer. “To put Sinema and Manchin together is poor journalism, and just silly to assume they’re friends.” (A Manchin spokesperson, Samantha Runyon, rejected these characterizations when I reached out for comment. “Senator Manchin has a great deal of respect for his good friend Senator Sinema and reports to the contrary are a silly distraction from the importance of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Runyon said. “Unnamed attacks on their relationship are a desperate attempt from the far left and far right to take aim at the moderate middle that most Americans identify with.”)
Now, this story has come full circle. After parading around the Sunday show circuit to promote the Inflation Recovery Act, Manchin has to get his legislation through a gridlocked 50-50 Senate. Which means he needs the blessing of Sinema, whom Punchbowl reported this morning was “blindsided” by what Manchin and Chuck Schumer cooked up. “The two people who the deal is tied to, don’t actually like each other,” said a senior Hill source. That may explain why you saw him literally kneeling on the Senate floor yesterday, while she was presiding, to explain his bill, and then again today when he cozied up to her on the floor to talk again.
Can Manchinema (or is it Sinemanchin?) overcome their differences? Sinema, who fancies herself a maverick and contrarian, spends most of her time with her Republican counterparts. Just this week, she was out having dinner with Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Shelley Moore Capito. When she’s not with Republicans, she hangs out with her House friends, who are more her peers—younger moderate Democrats like Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Kathleen Rice—but she never hits the D.C. cocktail circuit. “She knows she has a power and mystique in her difference,” noted a Senate aide. “She leverages that to her advantage. It helps her to advance what she cares about.”
Sinema has not bothered to charm her Democratic colleagues, making her one of the least popular colleagues in the caucus. At the same time, she has endeared herself to Senate Minority Whip John Thune, which will help her if Republicans take back power in the Senate. But she still lacks the kind of relationship that Manchin has built with Mitch McConnell. And in a lot of ways, she has endured sexism that Manchin will never understand, including from colleagues on her own side.
The two are also vastly different in their ambitions. Manchin, as I recently wrote, doesn’t love the upper chamber, where he is one of 100, and has told many people that he misses being governor of West Virginia. Sinema, on the other hand, is entering the prime of her career in a critical swing state. There have been rumblings of a quixotic third-party bid in 2024, which obviously seems unlikely but is the sort of quintessential D.C. smoke bomb that foreshadows larger ambitions down the road.
What the two share, of course, is that they are “kind of in the same lane,” the Senate aide noted. “They compete for who is the most moderate and bipartisan member of the caucus.” But in terms of actual policy, they have starkly different priorities. Manchin is much further to the left on taxes than Sinema, who has said that she does not want the IRA bill to include a tax increase. She’s further to the left of Manchin on climate, and so he claims that he stretched himself on this topic to address what he assumed would be her concerns based on their BBB conversations. He’s also a deficit hawk, whereas she appears to be speaking for the finance community when she advocated against including the carried interest loophole revision. For Manchin, a former coal executive, it’s about what’s in it for West Virginia. Whereas Sinema is thinking about Arizona—a larger economy that aims to be more startup-friendly and compete with Texas.
Sinema has channeled some of her concerns about the bill but hasn’t made up her mind on how she will vote, which is driving everyone crazy and will likely force them to stay at the Capitol over the weekend. It’s also giving people nightmarish flashbacks to her historic Gladiator-style downward-thumb “no” vote on raising the minimum wage.
At the end of the day, most people presume that Sinema will pass this bill. Naturally, her calculation may be that pissing off Manchin will be a bigger issue for her in the next Congress, if it’s handed back to Republicans, than it will be to tank a bill pushed by Schumer, as she’s done in the past.