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Democrats’ struggles to stay united are just beginning on Covid relief and Cabinet watch

In the last several days, we’ve seen the earliest signs of Democratic divisions popping up.

In a normal Senate where there were a few votes to spare, one member wouldn’t have so much power. But, if you have watched closely, you’ve seen the wave that a single senator’s comments can bring when they talk about what they can support in a bill or in a nominee. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has done this on the minimum wage. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has almost single handedly sunk a Biden nominee with a statement. That’s going to be the emerging story of the next two years.

The Biden administration and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have their work cut out for them when it comes to advancing their agenda and that’s not because they are bad at whipping votes or laying out a policy vision. It’s because the numbers aren’t flexible here.

Bottom line: Democratic unity is fragile here. It’s just a symptom of the numbers and the reality of a 50-50 Senate. It’s not just Republicans who have intra-party squabbles about the direction of their party. Democrats are going to wrestle with that too. It’s what we are seeing with the nomination of Neera Tanden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. It’s what we are seeing with the minimum wage. It’s going to continue to be a dynamic as we move toward infrastructure and immigration. The differences for Democrats is their disagreements don’t center around following one leader at all costs, but the party has an energetic base too and they have to balance it with the fact that if they want to keep controlling the Senate, they have to win in states that are rural and filled with voters who might lean more conservative than those in New York or LA.

The Cabinet

Tanden is the one to watch Wednesday, but the futures of a several other nominees are also worth watching. Nominees can’t just come to the Senate for their confirmation hearings and count on advancing with just Demcoratic votes. Tanden’s nomination reveals why that strategy is so untenable.

Two committee hearings that were scheduled to vote on Tanden’s nomination were unexpectedly postponed Wednesday, and an official on one of the committees told CNN senators wanted more time to consider the nomination.

These are not national security nominations. These are domestic policy nominees that strike at the heart of the differences between the two parties. It’s harder to win some Republican votes on a nominee whose job it is to strengthen Obamacare at HHS. It’s harder to win GOP support for an interior secretary whose job in the Biden administration will likely be to cut back on fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. That means Democrats have to stay united. Manchin isn’t the only member with power here. On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, voted against Biden’s nominee for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. It didn’t make a difference in terms of outcome because Vilsak has broad bipartisan support, but it shows that Manchin isn’t the only Democratic member willing to vote against Biden’s agenda or nominations in the Democratic caucus.

Keep a close eye on Rep. Deb Haaland’s nomination for interior secretary. She has another session for her confirmation hearing Wednesday, and seemed to walk away with some compliments from Energy Chairman Manchin on Tuesday. But, she’s not winning much Republican support so far with Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah saying he had some concerns about her past positions. Haaland was a vocal supporter of the Green New Deal and it’s something that multiple senators focused their questions on Tuesday.

On Covid relief

The House is on track to pass their Covid relief bill Friday with few or any defections. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday he was confident he could hold his caucus together. In the Senate, that is going to be a bit more challenging.

Timing

The Senate parliamentarian’s ruling on the $15 minimum wage could come Wednesday, but it could also take more time if the parliamentarian asks for follow-up material or needs additional resources.

Multiple Senate sources familiar with the matter told CNN the arguments on both sides were made Wednesday morning on the minimum wage hike. The Senate’s parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, has not yet ruled on the matter, and it’s not clear yet when she will.

Whenever the decision comes, it’s hard to remember another time that a parliamentarian’s decision was being watched so closely. Of course whatever MacDonough decides could impact the political dynamics of Biden’s package going forward. With minimum wage, Democrats could be staring down a potential intra-party schism over Biden’s first major legislative package. Without it, they could be facing a barrage of criticism from their progressive base that won them back the White House to begin with.

What will the parliamentarian decide?

Anyone who claims to know the answer to this question is guessing at best. CNN spoke to the former Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin on Tuesday night to walk through how he would be looking at the $15 minimum wage, but even he contended it was a “tough call” on whether it was allowed through the budget reconciliation process. He told CNN he could honestly see this going either way.

In order to get through, Democrats are going to have to prove that a provision has more than just an “incidental” effect on the budget. That word has been interpreted a lot of ways by multiple parliamentarians, but here is how it applies to minimum wage. On the one hand, the minimum wage proposal has a $55 billion impact on the federal budget over the next decade- more money than some past provisions that have gotten through this scrutiny. But, those impacts on the budget are also coming from the Congressional Budget Office estimating raising wages will raise prices of goods and services and that those higher prices will be passed onto the federal government as it buys materials. The CBO also estimates that if you raise the minimum wage it could have some effect on how much to government spends on some social programs like food stamps or unemployment insurance. Is that direct enough? Is that more than incidental? That’s the question here.

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

CNN

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