Why Joe Manchin Owns Washington Right Now

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the late Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. Jeffords gave us one of the few bright moments of 2001 when he left the Republican Party and became a Democrat. This flipped the Senate and gave the Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority until they lost it again in the 2002 midterms.

The 2000 election gave us a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie. Almost immediately Senate minority whip Harry Reid began looking for a disgruntled Repubican senator who might be flipped. He succeeded with Jeffords, a moderate whose disenchantment with the Repubican Party had been growing for years. CNN reported at the time:

Moderates don’t survive in the Republican Party without a thick skin. Over the years, the proud, laconic Jeffords had endured countless arm twistings, cold shoulders and petty slights for taking stands at odds with his party–against Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut and Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination, for the Clintons’ health-care reform, minimum-wage hikes and more money for the National Endowment for the Arts. But by last year, the hostility had begun to wear him down. He was chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a post that could be powerful in promoting his passion for schools, but conservative G.O.P. upstarts on the panel, such as New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, were constantly maneuvering to undercut Jeffords’ authority, doing things like convening private meetings of the committee’s Republicans and not inviting him. Jeffords complained to Lott, but the majority leader didn’t rein in the right-wingers.

Jeffords’s favored policies, such as education funding, were getting no respect from the “movement conservatism” Republicans aligning themselves with Bush and Cheney. He found himself butting heads with the “fiscal conservatives” who were determined to cut everything out of government but military spending. Oh, and it was more important to cut taxes than fund schools.

Angry over Jeffords’ opposition to Bush’s $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan, Bush aides didn’t invite him to a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher, a minor slight of the kind Jeffords had grown used to over the years. Others were more serious. The Administration began hinting that a program aiding Vermont dairy farmers might be in jeopardy. Jeffords was getting the silent treatment in the Finance Committee, and Gregg  [Judd Gregg, R-NH] announced that he would be “spearheading” the education bill for the G.O.P.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were being very, very nice to Jim Jeffords. At some point Harry Reid offered to step down as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee so that Jeffords could have the position, although it’s not clear whether this was before or after Jeffords committed to switch.

All this negotiating was being kept secret from the Republicans, somehow. Then, one day, Jeffords confessed to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) that he was thinking of switching parties. Snow immediately tried to alert the White House. And tried, and tried. White House chief of staff Andrew Card wasn’t available to return her call until the afternoon of the following day. And then, it was too late.

So here we are with another 50-50 Senate, and thank goodness the Vice President is a Democrat this time. But then there’s the Joe Manchin problem. Manchin is vowing to “never” vote to end the filibuster. He’s not the only holdout, but he’s the most visible one. All over social media I see people demanding that Manchin be “pressured” to go along with the program.

And I keep thinking of Jim Jeffords. I’m betting Chuck Schumer and a lot of other people are thinking about Jeffords. What are the chances Mitch and the boys aren’t dropping hints to Manchin about how welcome he’d be to their party? Pretty damn low, I’d say. I expect there’s only so far Manchin can be pushed before we end up with Mitch McConnell leading the Senate again. I expect a lot of legislation going forward will be written with Manchin’s parameters in mind.

Now I’m hearing that the Senate covid bill will likely scale back the direct checks for some people who got them before:

Under the plan passed by the House, individuals earning up to $75,000 per year and couples making up to $150,000 per year would qualify for the full $1,400 stimulus payment. The size of the payments then begins to scale down before zeroing out for individuals making $100,000 per year and couples making $200,000.
Under the changes agreed to by Biden and Senate Democratic leadership, individuals earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 would still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit. However, the benefit would disappear for individuals earning more than $80,000 annually and couples earning more than $160,000.

As Paul Waldman says, this is really stupid. To save a few bucks in the bill moderate Democrats are risking alienating a whole lot of voters. “Do Democrats actually gain anything by making this change?” Waldman asks. “Because it’s hard to see how they do.”

Manchin appears to have been the chief “moderate” who demanded the change. Waldman:

It was always a little odd that it was moderates who wanted to make sure those at higher incomes didn’t get too much assistance, but the disagreement wasn’t so much about fairness and equity as it was about how aggressive Democrats should be in confronting the effects of the pandemic. Progressives wanted to do as much as possible, and moderates wanted to find ways to scale back the bill’s ambitions.

And since the checks are the most visible part of the bill, that was a good place for the moderates to come out for trimming it back. Never forget that moderate Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are always on the lookout for high-profile ways they can disagree with their party, which helps them sustain their reputation for independence.

But it’s also probably the case that had Biden wanted, he could have held firm on the House’s numbers and the moderate Democrats would have gone along in the end. It’s implausible to think that Manchin or Sinema would have torpedoed the entire relief bill over this relatively minor question.

See also Moderate Democrats Strip Stimulus Checks From Twelve Million Voters for No Reason.by Eric Levitz. “… what do Democrats gain at the cost of denying checks to 12 million potential 2022 voters? How much money did Joe Manchin ‘save’ the U.S. Treasury?” Levitz asks. And the answer is, it makes the relief package 0.63 percent cheaper.

And if I were in charge of coming up with a Manchin strategy, I honestly don’t know what I would do.

9 thoughts on “Why Joe Manchin Owns Washington Right Now

  1. In a parliamentary system, defying the party whip is career-ending.

    In the Republican Party, defying the Party whip is career-ending.

    In the Democratic Party, defying the Party whip needs to be career-ending.  The change cannot be made with a snap of the fingers.  But the marker needs to be laid down, at once and without qualification, that the change is necessary and the change is coming.

  2. It’s probably simpler than one wants to admit. They want something. Funding for a pet project perhaps. I’m sure if they were asked they would tell. Do what LBJ would do–buy their vote by providing legislation that gives them something they can go home to tell their constituents.

  3. OY!  Manchin's ego is almost as needy as tRUMP's!

    So whatever you do, Dem's, whatever you want to accomplish, you have to factor-in kissing Joe Manchin's man-cheeks!!!

    So like maha, I have no idea of what you do with Manchin.  And a lot's ridin' on his ass!

  4. Here is he deal- Joe Manchin will never win a Republican primary in W. Virginia. Never. The threat of him joining the Republicans is pretty low. Granted, it is not zero in that he could be seeking other forms of payoff that the Republicans might willingly provide. Supposedly he didn't want to run again for his current term but Chuck convinced him so whatever Chuck promised him might also become public if he switched and I suspect that Joe might not want that to happen either.


  5. Joe Manchin is going to piss us off, a lot I suspect, over the next couple of years. But the reality is that a Dem senator from WV is a complete gift. If we have to pair back a few things to have that vote I can live with it. 

  6. Given the broad, high popularity of the original bill crafted by the democrats, including among republican and independent voters, opposition to it in “purple” states such as AZ and WV doesn’t make much sense politically for Sinema and Manchin.  Plus the fact that what the moderates have proposed only shaves off 0.63% of the total cost of the bill notwithstanding.  Manchin even has the support of the republican governor of his state to vote for the original bill, so politically it would have cost him little, if anything, to support it in its original form.

    This is yet another example of the centrist penchant for tinkering around the edges to minimize the effect of policies when going full bore is called for, as in this case.

    Its is symbolism at best, but comes at a potentially heavy political price due to the alienation of millions of voters who won’t receive a check this time, here’s the only explanation that makes sense: 

    Never forget that moderate Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are always on the lookout for high-profile ways they can disagree with their party, which helps them sustain their reputation for independence.

    I believe both Manchin and Sinema are trying to position themselves as the New Mavericks, McCain reincarnations who are thus respected (read: loved by republicans) and “bipartisan.”

    Rather than trying to figure out how to “manage” them with respect to making policy, the party should focus on the winnable senate seats in 2022 that would help them expand their majority and neutralize these erstwhile mavericks in the Senate.


  7. The flip side of this game is people like Lisa Murkowski, ostensibly a Republican who could be persuaded.

    The fact is, there will always be people at the margins, the Manchins and the Murkowskis, and when your margin is razor thin, they become extremely important.

    • "when your margin is razor thin, they become extremely important."

      It's not what any of us want to hear, but we won't be able to fix Joe – we have to make him irrelevant by electing a liberal Democrat to the Senate. (or two..or three) Then we pull the filibuster. And then we are STILL ruled by the most moderate block of votes that will buck what you and I want passed. That's not evil – it's democracy. 

  8. The CW certainly seems to be that Manchin has no incentive to switch to the Republicans. He can get primaried from the right but couldn't win as a Republican.

    Anyway, while it would be nice if the Democrats spoke with one voice on the need for all this stuff and got it out the door to be law of the land ASAP, all that this means is that the minimum wage and cash benefit cutoff issues will still be issues when the two versions go to conference. 

    Isn't it true that, since the House and Senate are not passing the exact same thing, there will have to be a conference version that each house votes on up or down with little/no debate? And if the conference version doesn’t have the benefit phaseout, will Manchin vote to burn down the entire economy to make his point?

    As for the filibuster, I can picture various face-saving scenarios where Manchin regretfully votes to carve out another exception to the filibuster for this or that. Voting rights laws, for example.

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