WASHINGTON — What does Joe Manchin want?
The question looms over the delicate negotiations on President Biden’s massive infrastructure package, which enters a crucial phase in the Senate this week, as well as pretty much any other item on the Democratic agenda.
The West Virginia senator has been at the center of the effort to draft a bipartisan, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges that Biden has vowed will be accompanied by a much larger, $3.5 trillion bill addressing Democratic priorities such as climate change and health care. Manchin has refused to say whether he’ll get behind that second bill, which almost certainly will need all 50 Senate Democrats to pass.
Democrats’ razor-thin majority gives each Senate Democrat tremendous leverage. But Manchin, a moderate Democrat from deep-red West Virginia, is the one who most publicly threatens to use it, and he seems to relish keeping everyone guessing about what it will take to get his vote.
That keeps him in the middle of the action on Capitol Hill, and amplifies the clout he already wields — particularly on the crucial issue of climate — as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
It also puts him in a great negotiating position with his fellow Democrats who are desperate for a legislative win.
“He’s an indispensable partner in getting to the final product,” said Senator Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who is pushing for aggressive measures in the package to tackle climate change. “Senator Manchin has done a good job of representing West Virginia, and it’s the job of everyone else to respond to his concerns and get both of these bills over the finish line.”
A veteran Democrat in a state that Biden lost overwhelmingly to then-President Trump, Manchin has frustrated many in his party who are eager to enact bold legislation using only their narrow majority if necessary. But Manchin has stood firm, along with moderate Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, in opposing calls to scrap the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires almost all legislation to get 60 votes to proceed in the 100-member chamber.
“Forget the filibuster,” he told reporters this month.
Manchin also opposed using budget reconciliation, a procedure which allows some bills to pass with a simple majority, on infrastructure unless Democrats first tried to strike a deal with Republicans.
“I’ve always tried to work in a bipartisan way and I’ve voted in a bipartisan way in the last 10 years of the Senate,” Manchin said last month in defending the approach. “So I’m doing what I have always done. Let’s unite this country. We don’t need to be divided any further.”
Manchin’s stance, which is shared by Sinema, is largely responsible for Democrats pursuing their current delicate, two-track strategy on infrastructure, in which they are moving the bipartisan and more sweeping infrastructure bills in tandem in order to keep their left and middle flanks united.
The fate of the bipartisan bill faces a key test this week. After Republicans blocked an initial vote on it last week, work to finish the legislation continued over the weekend with senators sounding optimistic a deal would be reached soon. In the meantime, Senate Democrats are starting to decide what exactly will be included in their $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.
Manchin is a key player in both of those efforts, trailed by a swarm of reporters wherever he goes in the Capitol.
“In a place where any senator could be king- or queen-maker if he or she wants, he’s demonstrated an ability and a desire more than most to be right in the middle of just about everything,” said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to Harry Reid when the Nevada Democrat was the Senate majority leader. “Whether it’s because of a strategy or he just likes the limelight, I honestly still haven’t figured that out.”
It all seems to frustrate Senate Democrats, who tread lightly around questions about Manchin while acknowledging they’ve got to keep him on board to pass major legislation.
“I think he’s very reasonable and strong and aggressive,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “Even if I disagree with him, we really at the end of the day need unity among Democrats to get really important things done.”
The White House also appears to be trying to stay on Manchin’s good side, especially after he complained last winter that he wasn’t given a heads up that Vice President Kamala Harris was visiting West Virginia in an apparent attempt to pressure him to support the COVID relief bill.
Biden nominated Manchin’s wife, Gayle Manchin, as co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development partnership between the federal government and West Virginia and 12 other states. The president also has tapped a Manchin ally, Rahul Gupta, a former West Virginia health commissioner, to be the nation’s drug czar, and another West Virginian, Brian Anderson, has been named executive director of a White House interagency working group focused on revitalizing communities hurt by closures of coal mines and power plants.
“It’s another example of, ‘We have to keep Joe Manchin happy,’ ” James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University, said of the appointments.
That effort also probably will include giving Manchin’s energy committee the lead role in drafting a clean electricity standard expected to be included in the reconciliation bill, Van Nostrand said. Biden has called for all electricity by 2035 to come from sources that don’t produce carbon emissions. Manchin, whose state is a top producer of coal, has said he was “very, very disturbed” about the possibility that climate provisions in the bill would eliminate fossil fuels.
“He’s putting up a good fight for West Virginia and coal,” Van Nostrand said. “I think he wants to do a deal and he’s going to use his leverage to extract the most he can.”
He’s already shown that in negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $579 billion in new money over eight years in addition to reauthorizing spending for existing programs. The legislation is expected to include several provisions Manchin recently pushed through his committee that are helpful to West Virginia. They include $11.3 billion to reclaim abandoned coal mine land and about $12 billion for technology to capture carbon emissions from smokestacks.
Next up for Manchin is the reconciliation bill, which he said last week he had not yet made a commitment to support.
“There’s going to be some real negotiations about the ultimate contents of the bill because there’s some things that will be within his committee’s jurisdiction,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia.
Democrats will get a better sense in the coming weeks exactly what Manchin wants in the reconciliation bill, and whether granting his demands could threaten votes on the other end of the spectrum by alienating progressives.
“I can only imagine what kind of goodies they’re going to stuff in there to try to bring Senator Manchin on board,” Manley said. “The risk, of course, is if you give Senator Manchin too much of what he wants, it’s going to drive support away elsewhere. No matter how it plays out, I expect Senator Manchin to be in the middle of this debate.”