Joe Manchin: Barrier to progress or voice of reason?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·8 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

There’s a running joke in Washington, D.C., that although Joe Biden may occupy the White House, it’s Joe Manchin who's running the country. His position as the most conservative Democrat in a Senate with a 50-50 partisan split gives him enormous sway over which elements of Biden’s legislative agenda become law.

Manchin’s influence was evident in the negotiations over the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package passed by Congress last month. With Republicans unified in opposition, all 50 Democrats had to be onboard, giving Manchin leverage to demand concessions. He voted for the bill, but played a key role in sinking the $15 minimum wage, reducing the size of unemployment benefits and lowering the income threshold for stimulus checks. Manchin was also pivotal during the confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet. His endorsements were key to the confirmations of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Attorney General Xavier Beccera, who both faced tight partisan votes. Manchin's announcement that he would not support Biden’s choice of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget effectively torpedoed her nomination.

As important as he’s been so far, Manchin — along with fellow moderate Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana — will play an even more pivotal role in upcoming legislative battles. Manchin, a deep believer in the importance of bipartisanship, has said he won’t back Biden’s massive stimulus bill unless Republicans have a voice in negotiations. Like the stimulus package, the infrastructure bill is likely to be eligible for reconciliation, a process that allows budget-related legislation to avoid a filibuster and pass with a simple majority. Some of the Democrats’ most important policy goals — like gun control and voting rights — don’t qualify for reconciliation and are vulnerable to GOP obstruction as long as the filibuster is intact. Manchin has repeatedly asserted that there is “no circumstance” in which he’ll vote to kill the filibuster, a stance that would render a major share of Biden’s agenda dead on arrival if he holds to it.

Why there’s debate

Critics on the left see Manchin as an impediment to the sweeping reforms they believe are necessary to secure the country’s future. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused Manchin of “holding back a complete transformation in working people’s lives” for opposing the $15 minimum wage. Others say Manchin’s presence has caused Democrats to water down critical legislation at a time when Americans need all the support they can get. But the biggest source of frustration for progressives is his seemingly steadfast commitment to preserving the filibuster. They argue that allowing the rule to remain in place, and therefore letting Republicans kill any non-budget legislation, could mean squandering the only chance Congress has to enact meaningful climate change action and shore up American democracy from GOP attacks.

Manchin’s defenders say liberal Democrats should be grateful for his presence. His ability to win elections in West Virginia, a state that Donald Trump won by 39 points in 2020, has been called “an electoral miracle.” While he may not be willing to go as far as they like on some issues, he is certainly more amenable to Biden’s agenda than a Republican in his seat would be. Others say Manchin is committed to a bipartisan process, not results, and has shown he’s willing to stick with his party on important votes — like the coronavirus bill. There is even some hope that he would be willing to sign on to filibuster reforms that would allow at least some of Democrats’ favored policies.

Manchin has earned praise from centrists and even some conservatives for standing in the way of the left wing’s most aggressive policies. Others say Congress would be much more effective at addressing the country’s needs if more lawmakers prioritized reaching across the aisle the way he does.

What’s next

As Democrats move forward with their policy agenda, Manchin will likely continue to be at the center of the conversation. With the infrastructure bill expected to move forward through reconciliation, it may be some time before Manchin’s commitment to regular order is formally tested by a GOP filibuster.

Perspectives

Critics

Manchin is naive for thinking the GOP will ever cooperate

“It seems that the Republican Party now considers Joe Biden governing the country according to the vision he articulated in his successful campaign for president — the one where he got 7 million more votes from American citizens than his opponent — is an assault on National Unity. The only way to have Unity is to do what Republicans want all the time. Everything else is divisive. But Joe Manchin tells us he can work with these people.” — Jack Holmes, Esquire

Maintaining the filibuster means putting procedural rules over democracy

“Could Joe Manchin really deny that allowing a group of lawmakers who represent a small (overwhelmingly white) minority of U.S. voters to fortify their own party’s overrepresentation, by safeguarding its power to gerrymander the House and suppress the vote, is a greater affront to our republic’s highest ideals than ending a tradition that was born this century? Maybe. Joe Manchin believes some pretty dumb stuff.” — Eric Levitz, New York

Manchin’s insistence on bipartisanship is harming the country

“If the Biden agenda mostly fails because of Manchin’s weird worship of the filibuster and his bipartisanship delusions, he will harm more Americans than the Red-baiting of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.” — Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

Democrats are forced to make their bills worse to get Manchin to sign on

“Trying to win bipartisan support also means putting forth legislation that would fail to meet the moment and provide Americans with what they need. For too long, Congress has failed to take decisive action on climate change, gun control and voting rights; these are not radical demands but issues that enjoy broad support.” — Julian Zelizer, CNN

Manchin needs to prove that bipartisanship is possible

“Well, it’s time for the gentleman from West Virginia to show us what he’s for and with whom he’s working among Republicans to create this legislative nirvana he talks so much about.” — Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post

He is hurting his own electoral chances by refusing to change his tactics

“Manchin’s trajectory points to a Democratic future in West Virginia. It may not run straight down the middle, between two partisan poles, but along the bottom, among those who haven’t benefited from the leadership at the top — blue or red. Perhaps King Joe is too comfortable, or too stubborn, to learn that lesson.” — Sam Adler-Bell, New Republic

Defenders

Manchin is preventing Democrats from ramming through their agenda

“Let’s be clear: Manchin’s willingness to serve as the lone buttress against a torrent of Democratic legislation required enormous courage. … Manchin’s urgent call to bipartisanship will likely fall on deaf ears, at least along the Potomac. But it won’t go unheard by everyday Americans, most of whom really do want their government to work along bipartisan lines.” — Kathleen Parker, Washington Post

Democrats should remember that the alternative to Manchin is a Republican

“Manchin’s success is unlike anyone else’s. In a state that Hillary Clinton lost by 42 percentage points and Biden lost by 39 points, Manchin is undefeated in six statewide elections. Without him, there would be no Democratic Senate right now and no $1.9 trillion virus relief law. It’s unclear how many of Biden’s cabinet nominees would have been defeated and how successful the president would be at putting federal judges on the bench.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times

Washington needs more lawmakers like Manchin

“Individual lawmakers with Manchin’s bent, who hold views across cultural lines — make partisans nervous. But they’re excellent for confounding the rigid antagonisms that keep a country locked in us-and-them battles whose reason for being was lost long ago.” — Virginia Heffernan, Los Angeles Times

He won’t stand in the way on critical legislation, like climate change bills

“Manchin may be obstinate, but he’s not an idiot. What ultimately will be best for West Virginians is policy that ensures not only their financial well-being but also their survival in the face of impending apocalypse.” — Nitish Pahwa, Slate

The electoral realities of West Virginia put Manchin is a tricky bind

“Making known his dissension from Democratic Party orthodoxy is essential to Manchin’s political survival in a state former President Donald Trump won twice, by roughly 40 points. And though he has long sought to be an essential Senate moderate, he has found mostly frustration during his 10 years as a senator, eventually declaring of the hallowed chamber: ‘This place sucks.’” — Burgess Everett, Politico

Outside a few high-profile instances, he’s largely a typical Democrat

“Progressives look at Manchin and his vote for Brett Kavanaugh, his pro-coal, self-described pro-life, mostly pro-gun views, and conclude they’re dealing with a conservative Republican who just happens to have a ‘D’ after his name. But if you step back and look at the big picture, Joe Manchin is clearly a Democrat.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

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