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Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) squabbled behind closed doors Wednesday, with Manchin using a raised-fist goose egg to tell his colleague he can live without any of President Biden's social spending plan, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The disagreement, recounted to Axios by two senators in the room, underscores how far apart two key members remain as the Democratic Party tries to meet its deadline for reaching an agreement on a budget reconciliation framework by Friday.

  • It also shows that despite the "kumbaya meeting" between Manchin and Sanders on Monday — after which they posed together for photos — the two remain sharply divided.
  • Manchin's comfort level with zero as a final number — and his willingness to threaten Sanders with it publicly at Wednesday's lunch for Senate committee chairs — reveals a stark reality for Democratic negotiators: Manchin can control the final dollar amount.
  • Spokespersons for both Manchin and Sanders declined comment.

Driving the news: Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, described the incident as "a difference in opinion."

  • "Joe said, 'I'm comfortable with nothing,' Bernie said, 'We need to do three-and-a-half [trillion dollars].' The truth is both of them are in different spots."
  • Manchin said, "I'm comfortable with zero," forming a "zero" with his thumb and index finger, Tester reiterated, saying he believes the West Virginia Democrat can live with himself if the Senate doesn't pass any of the president's $2 trillion to $3.5 trillion package.

Another witness, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said, "There was a vigorous, 10-minute discussion. Bernie said, '$6 trillion.'"

  • "[Manchin] said, 'We shouldn't do it at all,'" Coons recalled, himself making the goose-egg symbol as he recounted the conversation.
  • He said Manchin continued, "This will contribute to inflation. We've already passed the American Rescue Plan. We should just pass the infrastructure bill and, you know, pause for six months."

Overall, Coons said, there was "significant progress" in the meeting about identifying the core issues remaining.

  • He said the parties also forged ahead with "figuring out which of our different committee chairs and caucus leaders have a role in getting those issues closed, and trying to get people to be to be direct."
  • Coons is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

Between the lines: Despite the senators' private bickering, both Tester and Coons said they're hopeful Democrats will strike an agreement on a top-line figure for the package by the end of Thursday.

  • Manchin isn't as optimistic.
  • "This is not gonna happen anytime soon, guys," he said Thursday afternoon.
  • “I don’t see that happening," he also told reporters.

Go deeper

Biden hosts Manchin and Sinema at White House to push for voting rights reform

President Biden speaks to reporters after a meeting with Senate Democrats in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill Thursday. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Biden met with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) at the White House on Thursday night to discuss voting rights after they reaffirmed their opposition to reforming the filibuster, per the White House.

Why it matters: Biden and other Democrats want the Senate's filibuster rules changed in order to pass voting rights legislation.

Dem Senate candidates rally against “sellout” Sinema

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema enters the Democratic caucus meeting on Thursday with President Biden. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate are now explicitly campaigning against one of their potential colleagues, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — branded by one as a "sellout" for opposing filibuster changes to enact party priorities.

Why it matters: It's an evolution of an increasingly popular strategy among Democrats: turning legislative inaction to their advantage by casting themselves as the "50th vote" for programs or the filibuster changes needed to pass President Biden's agenda.

Arkansas Senators: Don't bust filibuster

Sen. Tom Cotton; Photo: Tasos Katopodis/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Sen. John Boozman; Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Both of Arkansas' Republican Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton made statements this week in defense of the chamber's filibuster rule.

Driving the news: President Biden attended the Senate Democratic caucus lunch Thursday to make a case for reforming the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.