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'Kingmaker' Manchin flexes his muscles as key swing vote in Senate

With 50-50 split, the West Virginia Democrat's votes on minimum wage, controversial nomination are crucial for Biden.

Updated: February 22, 2021 - 9:18am

Here's the current power structure in Washington:

  • 1. President Joe Biden
  • 2. Vice President Kamala Harris
  • 3. Sen. Joe Manchin

Manchin — considered the most conservative Democrat in the Senate — hails from West Virginia, where then-President Trump won in 2020 by a landslide, 68.6% to 29.7%. That means with every Senate vote, Manchin will be torn between his party and his constituents — and voters usually win those battles.

His own party is already putting the senator in a tough position. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are both being pulled left by progressive members, and the trend looks to continue for the foreseeable future.

Bloomberg News pegged the scene last month with a story headlined "Senator Joe Manchin Didn't Ask to Be a Kingmaker — But He Is One."

Manchin, for his part, said early in the new Senate session that he plans to work with Republicans. 

"I'm the most bipartisan member of Congress," Manchin told NBC News shortly after Democrats took control of the chamber. "I'm staying the most independent, bipartisan member of Congress," he said, adding, "I am a Democrat."

With the Senate split 50-50 between the two parties — which makes Harris the tie-breaking vote — Democrats can't lose a single member, provided Republicans vote straight party line. While there are a few moderate Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, far more often than not they stick with the GOP on big votes.

But Manchin doesn't toe the party line. He's already bucked his party on whether to do away with the filibuster, which Schumer was pushing hard.

"Like so much in the Biden presidency, the resolution ultimately came down to West Virginia's senior senator," wrote Bloomberg's Joshua Green. "Although Schumer held firm, Manchin, who bills himself a traditionalist and one of the few Democrats unwilling to 'go nuclear' and eliminate the filibuster, recommitted to that position. 'I will not vote to change the filibuster,' he told Politico on Jan. 25."

Manchin flexed his muscles again just last week, announcing he will support a nearly $2 trillion budget resolution on COVID-19 relief being introduced by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

And the feisty 73-year-old senator delivered a stern message to his colleagues in the Democratic Party.

"I have made it very clear ... we're going to make this work in a bipartisan way," Manchin said when asked if he would vote for a Democrat-only bill. "My friends on the other side are going to have input. And we're going to do something that we agree on. I'm not just going to do it just down the lines of, just saying party line vote."

Being bipartisan, he said, is how Congress should be.

"If it's out of the realm that makes sense and what we've worked on together, we've built too much trust up among each other to allow this to fall apart," Manchin said. "So they can count on me to make sure that we do everything to make this bipartisan."

Members of his own party, though, have loaded up the stimulus with a few poison pills, including an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more state and local assistance that Republicans deem excessive, and a $400 per week unemployment benefit, as well as $1,400 payments to millions of Americans, which Republicans say is just too high.

Manchin is not a fan of the minimum wage hike, which some estimates say will cost more than 1 million Americans their jobs as businesses are forced to close.

Both Biden and Harris are well aware of the power Manchin now wields. The president hosted a meeting with moderate Republicans on Feb. 1, among them Manchin. The White House said after the meeting, however, that Biden was not prepared to compromise on a package that "fails to meet the moment."

Harris, meanwhile, recently drew the West Virginia senator's ire by appearing on local news in his home state to tout the Biden administration's COVID relief package — without first consulting with Manchin.

Manchin said he "couldn't believe" his eyes when he saw Harris on local station WSAZ on Jan. 28 to push the proposal.

"In West Virginia, one in seven families is describing their household as being hungry, one in six can't pay their rent, and one in four small businesses are closing permanently or have already closed, so it's a big issue in West Virginia and across the country," Harris said. "And that’s why the president and I are offering the American Rescue Plan."

Manchin suggested Harris, as part of the new administration, should have at least given him a heads-up about her direct appeal to his voters, and he questioned Biden's Inauguration Day pledge for unity.

"I couldn’t believe it," he said. "No one called me. We're going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward, I think we need to ... work together. That's not a way of working together."

Manchin told WSAZ in response to Harris' interview claims, "We met with [Biden's] economic team, and they put out what they wanted." And he explained his opposition to blanket relief payments.

"We want to help everyone that needs help," Manchin said. "But if a person's making $250k or $300k, I don't think they're in much needs as a person making $40k or 50k. That's all I said. We're going to target."

Most recently, Manchin said he would oppose Neera Tanden's nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget, citing her biased statements on social media.

"I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget," Manchin said in a Friday statement. "For this reason, I cannot support her nomination."

In an odd twist, the Democrat's stance mirrors that of the Conservative Action Project, a coalition of conservative groups and leaders that came out last week in opposition to Tanden.

"It is critical that the OMB director lead the agency with sound judgment, as well as bipartisan civility," the group said in a memo. "Tanden has shown neither. A 2018 report found Tanden mishandled the personal details of a sexual harassment allegation at the Center for American Progress, the organization which she led. She is also accused of pushing or hitting a reporter during her tenure as a senior aide to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign." 

The memo was signed by 66 conservative leaders, including Edwin Meese III, who served as Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, Alfred S. Regnery, chairman of Conservative Action Project, Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, and L. Brent Bozell, founder and president of Media Research Center.

Biden, meanwhile, vowed to go forward with the Tanden nomination. "I think we are going to find the votes and get her confirmed," he said. Asked by reporters if he planned to pull the nomination, he answered, "No."

But the president does so wary of Manchin — and well aware he'll need the senator's support on far more important votes in the future.