Joe Manchin is at it again.
The West Virginia senator is making big threats. He hit up three of the big Sunday shows to explain why he wants a “pause” on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, which holds the Democrats’ core agenda funding child care, elder care, and climate change mitigation, though he won’t quite say what’s objectionable in it. He told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday that he might be OK with something around $1.5 trillion, but offered no ideas about what he’d gut to get there.
In July, he said he was “very, very disturbed” about its climate change proposals, which he claims would eliminate fossil fuels (they wouldn’t). On Sunday, he specifically attacked a plan to offer subsidies to utility companies that move to clean energy sources as unnecessary because “the transition is happening” (it’s not, or at least not fast enough).
Most political analysts describe Manchin as a folksy guy, who lives and entertains guests on a houseboat named “Almost Heaven,” (as in John Denver’s ode to his home state, “Country Roads”), just trying to represent conservative, working-class voters in a red state. In an otherwise excellent profile, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos claimed that “Manchin’s power is forcing Democrats to expand their focus on systemic inequities to encompass places like West Virginia, where substandard schools, high poverty, and distrust of government helped fuel radical conservatism.”
Except there’s plenty in the reconciliation bill that would help West Virginia, in particular, which ranks first in the nation in opioid addiction, second in poverty, 45th in education funding and 50th in infrastructure. And while most Democrats steer away from directly criticizing Manchin because of his pivotal role in an evenly divided Senate, that’s beginning to change. Lately some are suggesting openly that the coal magnate’s fealty is to his corporate donors, not the residents of West Virginia. And Manchin doesn’t like that one bit.
Last week Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez went off on him. ”Manchin has weekly huddles w/ Exxon & is one of many senators who gives lobbyists their pen to write so-called “bipartisan” fossil fuel bills,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “It’s killing people. Our people. At least 12 last night. Sick of this ‘bipartisan’ corruption that masquerades as clear-eyed moderation.” (She was writing after the remnants of Hurricane Ida slammed New York, shutting down the subway system, flooding highways, and drowning New Yorkers in basement apartments.)
And her Exxon reference was to this July report in HuffPost, that Exxon’s senior director of federal relations, Keith McCoy, had been caught on tape boasting, “Joe Manchin—I talk to his office every week. He is the kingmaker, and he’s not shy about staking his claim early and completely changing the debate,” McCoy said. Exxon’s put $12,500 into Manchin’s coffers since the 2012 election cycle. (Also in July, the West Virginia senator attended a Houston fundraiser in his honor sponsored by major Texas oil and gas industry leaders, some of them Republicans.)
Manchin howled when CNN’s Dana Bash asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism Sunday. “I keep my door open for everybody. That’s totally false,” Manchin told Bash. “Those types of superlatives, it’s just awful. Continue to divide and divide and divide.”
He went on: “I don’t know that young lady that well. I really don’t. I have met her one time, I think, between sets here. But that’s it. So we have not had any conversations. She’s just speculating and saying things because she wants to.”
I remember the old expression: A hit dog will holler. And will also condescend to a popular two-term Congress member as “young lady.” But last week Progressive Caucus vice chair Representative Katie Porter also questioned whether Manchin is more “concerned about his corporate donors” than American families on MSNBC. Look for more of this in the days to come.
Manchin also revealed what The Washington Post’s James Downie called his “selfishness” in his Sunday show preening. Asked on ABC why his $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill was crucial, and the reconciliation package is not, he answered:
“If you don’t need bridges fixed or roads fixed in your state, I do in West Virginia,” he said. “I need Internet in West Virginia. I got water and sewage problems. I have got all the problems that we have addressed in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.” True enough, but so much “I-I-I?” Aye-yi-yi. But that’s Joe Manchin. “I don’t give a shit, you understand?” he told The Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2017, about Democrats’ concerns with his bipartisanship. “Don’t care if I get elected, don’t care if I get defeated, how about that? If they think because I’m up for election, that I can be wrangled into voting for shit that I don’t like and can’t explain, they’re all crazy.”
Downie also pointed, correctly, to the coal empire that made Manchin rich, though his holdings are now in a blind trust. Type Investigations and The Intercept reported that in the 1980s he founded “a series of coal companies” now run by his son, and that he’s grossed $4.5 million from those firms since he joined the Senate in 2010. “Over the decades,” The Intercept concluded, “whether feeding tens of thousands of tons of dirty waste coal into the power plants in northern West Virginia or subjecting workers to unsafe conditions, Manchin’s family coal business has almost entirely avoided public scrutiny.”
In his most recent Senate disclosures, Manchin reported a net worth of between $4 million and $13 million dollars. According to Open Secrets, his Senate career has been powered by lawyers, the financial industry, mining interests, and Big Pharma. All of that is much more important to understand when assessing Manchin’s motives than his fealty to his red-state voters—and it deserves much more attention.
So what’s the endgame here? As my colleague John Nichols reports, Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders quickly slapped back at Manchin’s proposal to slash the reconciliation bill. “That $3.5 trillion [figure] is already the result of a major, major compromise, and at the very least this bill should contain $3.5 trillion,” Sanders said. But on ABC Sunday, Sanders left room for compromise with Manchin. “We worked together [on the American Rescue Plan], and I think we’re going to do it again,” he said. In that skirmish, you’ll recall, Manchin made loud noises about opposing the bill, but ultimately demanded modest reductions in unemployment benefits, then voted for the $1.9 trillion plan fairly intact.
Can we expect a similar outcome? That Manchin poses as a foe of big spending, for his home-state voters and his donors, but then accepts minor concessions and votes with the Democrats? I’m impressed with Sanders’s dealmaking, but I think the two sides are too far apart this time. For one thing, Manchin’s problems aren’t merely with the bill’s essential climate provisions but also with its corporate tax hikes, which he’d like to see set at lower rates. Lower rates are both politically problematic—voters support the bill’s higher rates for corporate and capital gains taxes—and fiscally: They’ll result in less revenue, which means greater debt—which Manchin is already complaining about. And when on Tuesday Sanders reiterated that the bill would remain at $3.5 trillion, Manchin replied, “God bless him is all I can say.” But maybe that’s how he negotiates.
All I know is that the win he needs most, right now, is that bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will deliver so much that he says West Virginia needs, plus let him boast back home that he’s still a guy who works with the GOP. I think progressives in the House and Senate will have to genuinely pull back their support for that bill, until he understands that he doesn’t call all the shots.
Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer all said from the beginning that votes on the bipartisan bill and the broader reconciliation package would proceed in tandem. But Manchin still thinks it’s possible to pass one and “pause” the other (to October? To October 2023? He doesn’t say). Progressives genuinely hate to block any socially worthwhile bill, and the bipartisan bill does a lot of good things. Still, its utter indifference to climate impacts, its favoring roads and bridges over transit and electric vehicles, is a genuine deal-breaker for a younger generation of progressives who’ve run and won on taking the climate crisis seriously (and who don’t have coal fortunes).
I think this conflict could fracture the fragile Democratic coalition in Congress. I lose sleep over that. I’m a fan of compromise. (Complicating matters further: On Tuesday, Democrats unveiled a compromise voting rights bill spearheaded by Manchin, which will almost certainly only pass if Democrats create a voting rights “carve-out” to block a filibuster—which Manchin insists he won’t support.) If Manchin insists on slashing or scuttling the reconciliation bill, as well as his own voting rights bill when it doesn’t get 10 Republican votes, it will ensure that Republicans take the House and the Senate in 2022. The GOP will see weakness, and the Democratic coalition voters will see it too.
I’m a broken record on this: Democrats have to deliver for their voters, or else their voters won’t turn out next time. If this deal falls apart, and nothing is delivered, it’s on Manchin. He’ll go down in history not as Folksy St. Joe but as the man who restored the Trump Republican Party (if not Trump himself) to power, which would imperil not just social progress but democracy itself.
It’s up to you, Senator Manchin.