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Joe Manchin flexes the power the current Senate math gives him
The West Virginia senator’s late Thursday night about-face on climate action and tax reform is the most recent example of why Democratic politicians keep asking you to vote this fall.
There are five quick things you should know about Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia:
He represents a deep-red state that former President Donald Trump won by 39 points in 2020 and has voted for the Republican ticket in the three presidential elections dating back to 2008.
He’s more popular today with his constituents than he was a year ago, doubling his approval rating among West Virginia Republicans. Manchin has enjoyed a 17-point bump in approval among all West Virginians since the first quarter of 2021 — the largest improvement of any US senator.
His personal wealth is mostly generated from a coal brokerage company he founded in West Virginia, holdings in coal companies and dividends from a mining company run by his son.
He blames the trillions of dollars in government spending since the start of the pandemic in part for the historically high inflation, despite many actual economists arguing otherwise. The response to this week’s June inflation report is the latest proof point.
He’s not up for reelection for another two years, so he faces no immediate electoral consequences — a primary challenger, for example — breaking with the rest of the party.
This context is critical when you consider the late-breaking news on Thursday from Tony Romm and Jeff Stein of The Washington Post that Manchin informed Democratic leaders of his opposition to climate provisions and a rollback of the 2017 Trump tax cuts in a budget bill the party hopes to pass through a process called reconciliation. (This special Senate procedure requires just a simple majority of yes votes for passage versus the 60-vote threshold most bills demand.)
Instead, the West Virginia senator said he would only support a package that extends the Affordable Care Act premium tax credits I wrote about on Thursday and a deal he brokered in recent weeks with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs.
“Senator Manchin believes it’s time for leaders to put political agendas aside, reevaluate and adjust to the economic realities the country faces to avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire,” a spokesperson for Sen. Manchin said in a statement. (Proponents of a broader reconciliation package say it would reduce inflation by lowering the costs of everyday expenses like child care, senior care, education and extending the popular child tax credit.)
The news was met with swift disapproval from progressives who view this as one of the last best chances to take meaningful climate action and rewrite a tax code too tilted in the favor of wealthy individuals and corporations.
There’s also lingering frustration with the White House and Democratic leaders for decoupling the reconciliation package — then known as Build Back Better — from an infrastructure plan that would have theoretically required conservative Democrats like Manchin to support BBB in exchange for the votes on infrastructure. (The infrastructure deal ultimately passed last November thanks in some measure due to a handful of congressional Republicans who voted for it.)
Even some of Manchin’s own Senate colleagues pulled few punches in the public denouncements of his decision.
“Rage keeps me from tears. Resolve keeps me from despair,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said in a tweet. “We will not allow a future of climate disaster. I believe in the power of the Green New Deal. The power of young people. I am with you. We will not give up.”
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who oversees the committee responsible for taxes and revenue, shared similar sentiments.
“I’m not going to sugar coat my disappointment here, especially since nearly all issues in the climate and energy space had been resolved. This is our last chance to prevent the most catastrophic — and costly — effects of climate change,” Wyden said. “We can’t come back in another decade and forestall hundreds of billions — if not trillions — in economic damage and undo the inevitable human toll.”
It’s become an online trend to bristle at the clarion call from Democratic elected officials to vote this November to protect their House and expand their Senate majorities in Congress. This, according to their logic, would enable legislation on voting rights, immigration reform, climate change, police reform, among other issues, to advance in the Senate and remove Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona from their perches as the two must-get votes on any major legislation.
I get why this feels annoying. Politicians habitually overpromise on what they can actually pass to energize marginalized people into turning out for elections while framing voting as a one-and-done proposition that is conditional upon whether or not you get everything you asked for in any given cycle. (Also if we’re keeping it real, people are annoyed less by the message and more by the messengers — that’s another post for another day though.)
But we’re here for one simple reason. The only duty we require of elected officials is to take votes. And right now, congressional Democrats lack the votes to advance their most ambitious policy priorities. There’s no shortcut or alternative path forward on many of these issues that have galvanized the Republican Party in almost complete opposition. The numbers matter and will always dictate which bills move through Congress.
Manchin is who he is and pressure campaigns to evolve him into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the unapologetically progressive congresswoman from New York, with next to no leverage for holding him accountable to this recasting is a questionable sacrifice of your finite political capital.
Where Democrats have historically dropped the ball is on taking ownership of and bragging about their wins. In the face of competing activist communities and a press corps that is incentivized to lambaste what didn’t pass as opposed to what did, there’s little room for victory laps in celebration of incremental triumphs. But the political class does you a disservice when it allows you to lose sight of the fact that no single bill can undo the generations of systemic and institutional injustice in one fell swoop.
The reality is that if Congress takes Manchin up on his offer, millions of people will get to keep their health care and pay fewer dollars for their prescription drugs each month. These are two issues with a broad nationwide appeal, that play well on the campaign trail and could put Republicans in quite the pickle for playing politics with people’s well-being. As disappointing as Manchin’s about-face feels, Democrats will do themselves no favors this fall if they don’t seize this imperfect opportunity.