The Morning: Can the Democrats succeed?

The Senate again takes up Biden's agenda.

Good morning. Congress is back. Does Biden's agenda still have a chance?

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Senator Joe ManchinSarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

'Manchinema'

Congress has returned to Washington after a recess, and Democrats are trying to come up with a slimmed-down version of President Biden's domestic agenda that they can pass in coming weeks. If they succeed, they have the potential to slow climate change, reduce drug prices for millions of Americans and raise taxes on the wealthy.

But the basic challenge in passing a bill is unchanged. The party cannot afford to lose even a single Democratic vote in the Senate, and two senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have publicly objected to parts of the agenda. Congressional Republicans remain unanimously opposed to any bill as has often been the case during recent Democratic presidencies.

At first glance, the objections from Manchin and Sinema can seem similar. Both are centrists who say they are worried about government spending and inflation. Some journalists have given the pair a nickname: Manchinema.

But Manchin's and Sinema's specific concerns are different. Both have wanted to shrink the bill — yet in distinct ways, which is a major reason that Democrats have been unable to reach a deal. "The clash oddly seems to be between what Manchin will accept and what Sinema will accept," Carl Hulse, The Times's chief Washington correspondent, says. As Emily Cochrane, who covers Congress, puts it, "That's the compromise that needs to be reached."

Sinema has generally been more skeptical of the tax increases in Biden's original proposal, while she has supported sweeping measures on climate and child poverty. She has been more willing to spend than to tax. Manchin, by contrast, has been supportive of the tax increases and skeptical of the spending programs, especially an expansion of the child tax credit and some climate measures.

Still, the outlines of a potential compromise seem fairly clear: It would be a much smaller bill than most Democrats want but could still make major changes to federal policy, likely focusing on climate change and perhaps prescription-drug prices.

Many Democrats are desperate to pass a bill. They understand that their control of Congress and the White House gives them a rare opportunity to pass ambitious domestic policies. They also know that a failure to pass legislation would make the party look incompetent and potentially aggravate the usual midterm losses that the president's party suffers.

Today's newsletter focuses on the differences between Manchin's objections and Sinema's — and what bill might be able to bridge them.

Sinema's objections …

Senator Kyrsten SinemaSarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

For all of Manchin's Democratic Party apostasy, he has regularly sided with the party's attempts to raise taxes on corporations and the rich. He opposed the Trump tax cut of 2017, and he has said he supports substantial tax increases as part of Biden's agenda (even if he does not want to go as far as Biden does).

If Democrats had to worry only about Manchin and not Sinema, they might be able to raise taxes on top incomes, investments and corporations. "You all know, the entire country knows, that I'm opposed to raising the corporate minimum tax rate," Sinema said at a recent event hosted by business lobbyists in Arizona.

As a result, a compromise proposal that the White House released in October, with at least tentative support from Sinema, dropped the major tax increases on which Biden campaigned. In their place, the proposal included a collection of smaller tax increases, like a 5 percent surcharge on household income above $10 million. Sinema is also more hostile to some forms of corporate regulation than Manchin is.

In the long term, Sinema's 1990s-style moderation arguably creates bigger problems for the Democratic Party than Manchin's policy views do. Taxes on the wealthy and corporations are historically low, and raising them is central to paying for Democratic plans for expanding social programs, reducing inequality and lowering the budget deficit.

Sinema's approach is particularly vexing to many Democrats because a more populist, progressive Democrat could probably win Arizona too, as Matthew Yglesias of Substack has pointed out. Arizona's other senator, Mark Kelly, is also a Democrat and has largely supported Biden's agenda — which, polls show, is popular in the state and nationwide.

Manchin, by contrast, represents West Virginia, a state that Biden lost by nearly 39 percentage points. If Manchin didn't defy his party, a Republican would probably hold his Senate seat. His prominent opposition to the bill has helped his approval rating soar in West Virginia, Morning Consult reported this week.

… and Manchin's

Despite all this, many Democrats are more frustrated now with Manchin than with Sinema. She is at least willing to negotiate in consistent ways, they say. Manchin seems to have changed his position multiple times over the past several months.

Many Democrats aren't sure that he will agree to any deal. He may instead see blocking a bill as his best path to re-election in 2024. "There's real fear inside the building that Manchin's stonewalling will run out the clock," one White House adviser told The Washington Post.

To be fair, other Democrats deserve some responsibility for the lack of Senate passage. Party leaders wasted time on an obviously doomed voting-rights bill this year, and they have sometimes seemed to ignore Manchin's objections to Biden's agenda.

Manchin, for example, has made clear that he opposes a large increase in the child tax credit, viewing it as a disincentive to work. Other Democrats have responded by repeatedly arguing that he is wrong on the merits rather than recognizing that they are not going to change his mind — and that they need his vote.

What's next

The Senate will be in session until Memorial Day weekend, and Democratic leaders and White House officials are quietly trying to negotiate a bill.

If they can succeed, the final version would likely resemble what Manchin has sketched out in recent weeks: tax increase that are large enough to reduce the deficit (and, he hopes, reduce inflation); a measure to reduce prescription-drug prices; and spending to expand the use of clean energy and lower the cost of health insurance.

"Given the failed effort last year, I think there's a lot of skepticism that a deal can be struck that appeases both centrists like Manchin and Sinema as well as liberal lawmakers, given how thin the margins are," our colleague Emily Cochrane said. "But there's an increasing appetite to just get something into law, to deliver some compromise for voters ahead of the November election."

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ARTS AND IDEAS

Mi-Sant Banh Mi Co. in Brooklyn Park, Minn.Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Fast food of the future

Drive-throughs, an American innovation that went mainstream in the 1970s, are often associated with burgers and fries. Some Vietnamese restaurants are aiming for that same fast-food success, Priya Krishna writes.

In Houston, which has a large Vietnamese population, several drive-through Vietnamese restaurants have opened in recent years, and others are popping up around the country. Americans' increasing familiarity with the cuisine also helps the trend, one owner said.

Cassie Ghaffar, an owner of Saigon Hustle — with plans to expand nationally in a few years beyond the one restaurant — said that she hoped to mimic the success of Panda Express. Saigon Hustle serves banh mi (sandwiches), bun (vermicelli bowls) and com (rice bowls). "The drive-through is less intimidating," Ghaffar said. "It is giving more people an opportunity to try Vietnamese cuisine."

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Make Vietnamese rice noodles with lemongrass shrimp (or beef, pork or chicken).

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Late Night
Now Time to Play

The pangram from yesterday's Spelling Bee was megaplex. Here is today's puzzle — or you can play online.

Here's today's Wordle. Here's today's Mini Crossword, and a clue: Waffle topping (five letters).

If you're in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. What does your school's curriculum look like? Let The Times know.

"The Daily" is about the Supreme Court. On "The Argument," why Republicans are focusing on L.G.B.T.Q. issues.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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