Analysis: Manchin offers little comfort to frustrated Democrats

The senator from West Virginia, who sits at the fulcrum of Washington’s balance of power, signaled in a new CNN exclusive interview that he’s nowhere near ready — yet — to loosen a grip that is stalling President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda.

Manchin is the most prominent moderate Democrat who could block future efforts to ram infrastructure spending, voting rights reform, climate change legislation — and anything else — through a 50-50 Senate without Republican votes. His steadfast positions not only infuriate more progressive members of his party, from far more liberal parts of the nation than deep red West Virginia, but they also spark endless fascination with his motives — and questions over exactly what he is trying to achieve.

Perhaps most perplexing for Democrats is that Manchin is devoted to the idea of a tradition of civility and cooperation in the Senate. In this, he’s not that different from Biden himself, who has made healing divides and reaching across bipartisan lines a centerpiece of his presidency. Manchin holds an old-fashioned belief that the country’s poisoned divides could actually be healed if senators sit down in a spirit of give and take and thrash out a deal both sides can accept. “We can’t continue to split and go further apart. We just can’t do that, we’ve got to work together,” Manchin told Raju.

That is the way that Washington should work. If no one gets exactly what they want but walks away satisfied, then the Founders’ preference for compromise in the cause of democratic self-government is fulfilled. But in the current fractured era (and in many others), it’s also an idealized vision of a political system that doesn’t exist. There are few signs that a rampaging Republican Party that operates as ex-President Donald Trump’s personality cult is ready to negotiate any deals that might help Biden claim a win or that do not exclusively serve the GOP’s own midterm agenda. The Senate GOP’s blockade of a bipartisan, independent probe into Trump’s January 6 insurrection — one of the worst assaults ever on US democracy — is proof of that. Manchin expressed frustration over that decision — but it hasn’t pushed him off his filibuster pedestal.

Of course, Manchin is a savvy power player. He’s a former legislator and governor of his state — one of the poorest in the nation, which is already being hammered by the world’s turn away from fossil fuels. If his goal is to extract extra federal funding — for green energy projects to replace coal mining jobs. for instance — he’d be a fool to reveal his price until the most opportune moment. It would be hard to find a senator who is more proud of, or combative on behalf of, his home patch. Yet Manchin, as he faces a storm of criticism from liberal Democrats, is giving no overt sign that he’s looking for special spending to buy his vote.

Still, he might have delivered a rather broad hint. Manchin appeared at a news conference on Thursday before his interview — with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who was invited to a forum on the issue for which she has Cabinet responsibility. “We’re here to show Secretary Granholm what we have to offer, what we’ve been able to do for the last 100 years … and what we’re prepared to do,” Manchin said.

Critics of Manchin might also concede that if he’s using his position to enhance his own power then he’s only doing what 99 of his colleagues would do if they had the chance. Speaking of power, there’s also plenty of speculation that the positions that Manchin laid out in his interview with Raju are in the service of saving his own skin. After all, he performed the extraordinary feat of clinging to his Senate seat in 2018 in a state Trump won with 69% of the vote in both 2016 and 2020. It would not be surprising if he filters every decision in Washington through the prism of a potential run for reelection in 2024. Manchin is also the only Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia, so it’s quite possible that by dragging his heels on backing a sweeping liberal agenda, he’s doing exactly what his voters want.

And if he is engaged in an intricate electoral balancing act, then it’s one that produced a 50-50 Senate for Democrats in which Vice President Kamala Harris has a tie-breaking vote. Had Manchin lost three years ago, Biden would have Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, as Senate majority leader, in his grill every morning.

More time

In his one-on-one with CNN, Manchin signaled that he wants more time for talks between the White House and Republicans on a bipartisan infrastructure deal. This comes despite significant concessions already by the President. The White House and top Cabinet officials are piling on the pressure for a resolution this week, in the knowledge that the apex of Biden’s power ebbs all the time as midterm elections approach.
But Manchin told CNN: “These (things) take time. I know everyone’s in a hurry right now.” His position is likely to further annoy many Democrats. Biden has already significantly trimmed his aspirations, coming down from a $2.2 trillion initial plan to $1 trillion — a reduction of more than half.

On Thursday it emerged that the President had made another significant concession — apparently dropping his call for corporate tax rates to be raised from 21% to 28% to pay for the plan — a proposal that would have been dead on arrival with the GOP. The President is now suggesting that the package could be financed by imposing a minimum tax on corporate profits of 15% and closing loopholes used by corporate giants to avoid paying taxes.

His moves are sure to fuel concerns by liberal Democrats that the President is going too far to honor his own rare predilection in his party for seeking bipartisan ground with Republicans. The fact that Manchin says the talks must go on if the GOP tries to drive an even harder bargain will only exacerbate fears by progressive Democrats that the GOP is taking them for a ride.

Senate Democrats face tough test of unity with voting rights bill
Manchin also used his CNN interview to deepen his line in the sand over the sweeping “For the People Act,” a House-passed bill that would impose national standards on practices like early voting, mail-in voting and voter registration. The proposed law would reverse many of the restrictive voting laws being passed in Republican-run states to appease Trump’s lies about electoral fraud.

Given the measures’ political implications, there is no chance that 10 Senate Republicans will join Democrats in a 60-vote supermajority to pass it. Therefore, Manchin is under pressure from Democrats to agree to abolish or to amend the 60-vote filibuster rule — assuming that he, Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and some other Democrats with reservations about the bill can be coaxed on board.

But he’s showing no sign of budging on that either.

“We’re going to make the place work, and you can’t make it work unless the minority has input,” Manchin said, defending the filibuster. “You can’t disregard a person that’s not in the majority; the Senate was never designed that way.”

His position is again one that fuels claims that he is naive, is seeking bipartisanship for its own stake and is allowing himself to be used by hardline Republicans dedicated to blockading Biden’s presidency.

Filibuster fury

Many Democrats argue that the GOP is abusing the filibuster and is helping to protect one of the most flagrant attempts ever to crush American democratic freedoms across the country.

“The constitutional framers did not anticipate that so many votes on important matters would require a minority to be in charge,” Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania said on CNN “Newsroom” last Sunday.

“They thought a simple majority vote should be in charge.”

But Manchin said in the interview Thursday that Democrats who want to abolish the filibuster should be careful what they wish for. He brought up then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s move in 2013 to remove the 60-vote filibuster standard for presidential nominees other than those on the Supreme Court.

Four years later, Republicans went one step further, allowing them to install what is likely a generational conservative majority on the top bench. Still, many Democrats reject this argument, reasoning that McConnell’s hard-driving style and willingness to write his own rules for Senate procedure make it likely that he would abolish the filibuster himself if the GOP wins back control of the chamber, in order to pass a conservative wish list on issues like gun control and abortion.

Manchin did leave one tantalizing unknown unanswered during his interview. While forcibly stating his positions on the filibuster and bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, he did not nail down an absolute refusal to ever change his mind. His ambiguity at least left open the possibility that he might view Republican bad faith in infrastructure talks or flagrant electoral manipulation as a spur to shift position.

But that’s a riddle for another day.

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