It’s Joe Manchin’s America

The senator from West Virginia continues to wield an unfathomable amount of power over the president’s agenda.

Senator Joe Manchin
Bloomberg / Getty

On March 6, 2021, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia delivered the decisive 50th Democratic vote to help pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The stimulus package provided relief checks to most American families, expanded a child tax credit to combat poverty, and bolstered federal support to fight the coronavirus pandemic. That moment briefly raised hopes on the left that Manchin, a centrist if not conservative Democrat, would back Biden’s fledgling effort to usher in a progressive economic transformation not seen since the New Deal.

Yet over the following year-plus, Manchin has rejected every other attempt by Democrats to wield legislative power using their slim congressional majority without Republican votes. He nixed Biden’s initial $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan and then a smaller $1.9 trillion proposal, as well as a bid to relax the filibuster and allow Democrats to pass a major voting-rights bill. Biden has yet to stamp a veto on a single piece of legislation during his first year and a half in the White House. Manchin, however, continues to issue them at will.

Manchin’s latest veto came yesterday, when he told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he would not support legislation in the coming weeks to spend as much as $375 billion on new climate and energy programs and raise taxes on the wealthy. The West Virginian, according to a Democrat briefed on the talks and granted anonymity to describe them, said he would support only a bill that reduced prescription-drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices and extended subsidies in the Affordable Care Act for another two years. (The Washington Post first reported Manchin’s ultimatum.) Democrats need Manchin’s backing because to skirt Republican opposition, they are using a Senate budget process known as reconciliation that is not subject to the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.

Manchin’s move is devastating news for progressive lawmakers and activists, who view this two-year window of Democratic power in Washington as the final opportunity to meaningfully confront climate change before it’s too late. It also deepens a sense of betrayal directed at Manchin and widely shared among Democrats.

During the first year of the Obama administration more than a decade ago—the last time the party controlled both Congress and the presidency—Democrats believed that Republicans played them for fools when they dragged out negotiations over a far-reaching health-care bill only to walk away. They see Manchin doing the same now under Biden, playing the role of Lucy ripping away the football from a gullible Charlie Brown.

To progressives, Manchin’s slippery-if-not-dishonest negotiating style has meant that Biden has all but wasted what is likely to be—should Republicans recapture at least one chamber of Congress this fall—the Democrats’ only real chance at governing during his presidency. Yet Biden has actually gotten quite a few significant bills enacted since the American Rescue Plan passed last March; only it has been Republicans, and not Manchin, who have helped the most to deliver them.

Biden has signed bipartisan legislation to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects, tighten gun laws, combat sexual harassment in the workplace, overhaul the U.S. Postal Service, and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Lawmakers are also nearing agreement to update the Electoral Count Act, and they’ve made significant progress on major legislation to bolster domestic manufacturing. For a Democrat presiding over one of the smallest congressional majorities in modern history, that’s not a bad legislative record, even if much of it has escaped the notice or appreciation of voters. Manchin has backed all of these efforts and even helped negotiate several of them, but his vote has been decisive for none of them. In each case, GOP support has been the necessary ingredient that allowed bills to clear the Senate filibuster that Manchin (along with Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) has refused to alter.

The $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill for which Manchin did provide the crucial vote was a big deal; in dollar terms, it roughly equaled the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act that became Barack Obama’s singular first-term accomplishments. But without even a sliver of Biden’s initial Build Back Better program making it through the Senate, it’s fair to argue that the president has actually gotten more from Republicans than he has from the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus.

Manchin, of course, has provided indispensable support to confirm many of Biden’s executive-branch and judicial nominees, and his mere presence in the caucus allows Democrats to control the Senate agenda—at least for the next few months. Even the prescription-drug reform that Manchin is now offering to support would fulfill a long-standing priority for the party. This morning, he also said that the larger climate-and-tax-increase package was still alive, if Democrats were willing to wait for another month’s worth of inflation data before acting on it. “Come back the first of September and pass this if it’s a good piece of legislation,” Manchin told a local radio host in West Virginia. “I’m being as sincere as I can be: I want to help this country.” (Manchin’s office did not respond to a separate request for comment and clarification on his position.)

After a year’s worth of thus-far fruitless negotiations, Democrats have reason to doubt Manchin’s sincerity. Many in the party see a senator who is too beholden to lobbyists, too sympathetic to bad-faith GOP arguments, too enamored of the attention he can command by holding aloft his metaphorical veto pen. Republicans have predictably refused to engage on most of Biden’s most ambitious agenda items, dooming his vision for a larger social-safety net and voting-rights legislation. But when they have chosen to deal, they have seemingly proved to be more reliable negotiating partners than the Democrat from West Virginia. That realization won’t lift the despair of progressives whose worst fears are coming true, but for Biden, it might count as the biggest surprise of all.