Five months after taking office, Joe Biden’s legislative agenda from infrastructure to voting rights is essentially hanging in the balance of one Democratic senator: Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The Democrat-controlled Senate passed a flurry of measures in the early days of the administration, including the $1.9tn coronavirus stimulus package and a nearly quarter-trillion-dollar bill to improve American competitiveness with China.
But that burst of legislating dramatically slowed last week as the Senate prepared to consider a series of Democratic priorities crucial to Biden’s vision and the White House’s hopes for meaningful policy achievements before the 2022 midterm elections.
The faltering efforts stem from Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the 50-50 Senate, which, in allowing any senator to hold up legislation, has thrust Manchin, the most conservative Senate Democrat, into the center of relevance in the nation’s capital and a position of almost unique power.
The political dynamics mean Manchin now commands huge influence over Biden’s agenda, setting the stage for a collision between Democrats eager to use their majority to pass sweeping legislation, and his determination to restore bipartisanship to a divided Senate.
“Senator Manchin’s influence there is shaping the agenda for the Democrats,” said Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University. “He’s the crux – he’s everything around which the majority depends.”
The hand-wringing over Manchin’s power will only intensify in the coming weeks as Senate Democrats turn their attention to an infrastructure package and an expansive voting rights bill, known as For the People Act, opposed by Manchin for being too partisan.
Manchin, a rarity as a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, has already warned Biden and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, that he would oppose any legislation if they did not first work to compromise with Republicans.
“Senate Democrats must avoid the temptation to abandon our Republican colleagues on important national issues,” Manchin wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, in a throwback to a bygone era of collegiality in the Senate.
Manchin often describes himself as having learned to legislate with “common sense” from watching small-town officials navigate local politics, even before he was twice elected governor of West Virginia first in 2004, and then in 2008 with nearly 70% of the vote.
He is considered to most take after his uncle, Antonio James Manchin, an entertaining politician who became something of an icon in West Virginia politics after he rid the state’s countryside of thousands of rusting junked cars and old tyres.
But the younger Manchin, who grew up in the small mining town of Farmington, built his own bonds with constituents when he cut short a 2006 trip to cheer on the West Virginia University Mountaineers at the Sugar Bowl in Atlanta, when a mine disaster struck back home.
Now Manchin is the only Democrat who holds statewide office in West Virginia, a notable anomaly in a state where its rural working-class voters, who once backed Democrats for their strong trade union ties, have shifted sharply to the right.
And after he held on to his Senate seat in 2018 in the steepest re-election challenge of his career, Manchin credited his survival to the strength of trust he built with voters through his compromise-seeking approach in the Senate.
But in a hyper-partisan Washington, especially with Republicans committed to blocking Biden’s agenda, the chances of compromise materializing are slim.
The bipartisan negotiations on infrastructure between Biden and the Senate Republican Shelley Moore Capito, for instance, collapsed on Tuesday after four weeks of talks failed to reconcile wide differences on size, scope and financing of the package.
Meanwhile, on the voting rights bill, even moderate Republicans are united with the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, in refusing to engage in discussions on a measure they describe as a partisan power grab by Democrats but which many voting rights advocates describe as a vital defense of American democracy.
The political landscape in the Senate means Democrats are likely to have little choice but to try to ram through legislation by destroying the filibuster rule – essentially a supermajority requirement – and pass them on a simple majority, party-line vote.
Yet, here again there is a roadblock in the way: Manchin.
Manchin believes that ending the filibuster would destroy the Senate and has repeatedly vowed to protect the procedural rule, invoking how his predecessor, Senator Robert Byrd, told him the chamber was supposed to force consensus.
The Manchin-shaped hurdle for Biden’s agenda is delighting Republicans but exasperating Democrats, who say they can’t understand what he wants. “Can’t we just give West Virginia a new airport?” one Democratic leadership source said, illustrating the frustration.
Manchin’s approach to moderating Democrats’ legislative ambitions is motivated in some part by the increasingly Republican nature of the state he represents, according to a source close to the senator.
Trump won West Virginia in the 2020 election, and white voters without a college degree, the main demographic of Trump’s base, made up 69% of registered voters, according to census data – the highest anywhere in the country.
“It’s among the deepest, reddest states in the country,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So when Senator Manchin says, ‘If I can’t go home to West Virginia and explain it to my folks, I can’t be for it,’ he means that.”
Democrats have mostly taken a hands-off approach with Manchin, mindful that his vote remains the only bulwark between a Democratic-controlled Senate, and a Republican-controlled one.
But mostly, they just know that even if their patience is about ready to expire, there is ultimately little they can do.