When West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin rocked Washington with his announcement that he would oppose President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, he offered a sort of explanation. “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t,” Manchin told Fox News Sunday. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.”
But the corporate-aligned Democrat, whose pre-Christmas pronouncement derailed end-of-the-year efforts to enact the social spending measure, never tried to explain the plan to West Virginians. He did the opposite. He talked about it being too expensive, too wide-ranging, too ambitious in its approach to everything from ending child poverty to addressing climate change.
“Let’s be clear: Manchin’s excuse is bullshit,” responded Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “The people of West Virginia would directly benefit from childcare, pre-Medicare expansion, and long term care, just like Minnesotans.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was equally blunt, saying on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “The idea that Joe Manchin says he can’t explain this back home to his people is a farce.”
Of course it’s a farce.
Manchin’s a political careerist who has a long history of using elected positions to enrich himself and his family. His low opinion of his constituents has long been an open secret in West Virginia. Now, it’s making headlines.
“Manchin reportedly told people that parents who receive the $300 per child would spend that money on drugs,” announced WTRF-TV in Wheeling. “Manchin also reportedly told fellow Senators that he was against the bill’s paid sick leave because people would lie about their illness for hunting trips.”
Despite the revelations about his personal profiteering, deference to donors, and disregard for the people he is supposed to represent, Manchin is now claiming that West Virginians agree with him.
“When I talked with Senator Manchin on Monday, one of the things he kept saying to me was that West Virginians were happy that he wasn’t going to move this bill forward, that it wasn’t good for West Virginia. I don’t think that’s true,” Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told me Tuesday.
Jayapal’s right: Polling shows that most West Virginians agree with most of the Build Back Better agenda.
After Jayapal issued a statement that declared the senator was not “a man of his word,” the CPC chair said Manchin called her. Her statement clearly stung.
Manchin’s call offered an indication that he is sensitive to suggestions that he is out of touch with key constituencies in his state, said Jayapal, who believes that those constituencies may yet be able to convince Manchin to support much of the Build Back Better agenda—perhaps as a piece of major legislation, perhaps in parts. Jayapal holds out hope based on developments since Manchin’s Sunday interview. “I think that, separate from all the statistics of poverty and need in his state, Senator Manchin needs to hear from people. That’s why I think [Manchin’s longtime ally] Cecil Roberts’s statement is so important. I think that statement is just the beginning of a number we’ll hear, from moms, families who are going to lose the child tax credit, from people who will be speaking out and saying, ‘No, Senator Manchin, this is what West Virginia needs. Please consider and let’s pass it.’”
“Let’s just hope,” she added, that he’s listening to his constituents.”
“Joe Manchin Doesn’t Speak for Us”
Roberts, a 75-year-old native of Kanawha County, W.Va., is the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the union that has represented miners in coal country for a century. After Manchin delivered a blow to the Democrats and his constituents on Sunday, Roberts and the mineworkers urged the senator to “revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.”
Although Manchin has been one of the union’s chief allies, Roberts did not mince words in his statement, saying that a failure to advance Build Back Better legislation will be bad for union members, and bad for West Virginia.
“The bill includes language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits received by victims of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung,” said Roberts. “But now that fee will be cut in half, further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers.”
The bill includes language that will provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of coal miners who have lost their jobs. We support that and are ready to help supply those plants with a trained, professional workforce. But now the potential for those jobs is significantly threatened.
The bill includes language that would, for the first time, financially penalize outlaw employers that deny workers their rights to form a union on the job. This language is critical to any long-term ability to restore the right to organize in America in the face of ramped-up union-busting by employers. But now there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work.
For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass.
Roberts and the UMWA are not alone in speaking up. After detailing harms that would be done to West Virginia by abandoning the Build Back Better agenda, Eric Engle, a regular commentator on the opinion pages of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, wrote this week, “I’m sure Manchin’s industry and corporate backers were thrilled to hear Manchin’s Fox News announcement. What a great return on investment. But working families, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, people with black lung disease and those of us who understand the extreme urgency of addressing anthropogenic global climate change certainly are not.”
And at a rally Monday in Charleston, resident Angi Kerns declared, “Joe Manchin doesn’t speak for us and…doesn’t represent us.”
That’s a message that needs to be amplified in coming days, said the Rev. William Barber II, who has been organizing in West Virginia with the Poor People’s Campaign. “You can’t move Manchin in the back room,” the Moral Mondays leader told me, adding that there is still “time to unite and put massive pressure on Manchin.”