Crunch Time in Washington

Bill Lasarow

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Joe Manchin looks toward the last two Senators to have switched party affiliation: Arlen Specter and Richard Shelby.

“We’re going to have to … fundamentally alter the filibuster.”

— President Joe Biden, CNN Town Hall, October 21, 2021

 

Joe Manchin is a 74-year-old who first entered the Senate representing the state of West Virginia via a special election after the death of Robert Byrd. He has since won reelection twice in one of the poorest as well as most Republican states in the Union. It may be best known to the rest of the country as a coal state. Perhaps it is THE coal state, though only about 42,000 coal workers remain on that particular job. It is an industry and a source of electric power that has diminished by more than half in a single generation (renewables just recently passed coal, producing 21% of the nation’s energy versus coal’s 19%), and as it has diminished its voters have chosen to elect Republicans to every state and national office in hopes that coal and fossil fuels will once again be the economic engine of the United States of America.

 

This has left him as decisively the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. He is not quite the only Senator that has held up passage of the 117th Congress’ two most consequential pieces of legislation; but he has been far and away the most visible. Some would argue, with good reason, that these are the most important Senate bills in the last half century or more, since the 1964 Civil Rights Ace that was followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So why is Manchin not simply a lone and inconsequential figure? Because due to the 50-50 split in the Senate, both bills will pass or fail at his whim. There will be no bipartisan support for either, no matter what Manchin does to attract allies across the aisle. Even those Republicans who may be so inclined in principle will not join him because they know very well that passage is as significant a threat to their party’s desire to regain political power as failure is to that of the Democrats. The larger question is who benefits from which party. Who indeed? And then there is the country as a whole.

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Pocahontas coal plant, Eastgulf, Raleigh County, West Virginia. Photo by Magnolia677.

Aside from Manchin and Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, the other 46 Democrats and two Independents have formed a unified bloc of support for both S.2747, the Freedom to Vote Act, and S.5376, the Build Back Better Act

Neither can pass except through reconciliation, the exception that permits a straight majority vote in certain cases. The Senate filibuster rule permits this to apply to S.5376; but it must be changed or dropped entirely for S.1 to pass. The lion’s share of attention at the moment is on revisions to S.5376 that are sufficient to earn Manchin’s vote. That is the “why” of Democrat-to-Democrat negotiation, with Manchin as a, perhaps the central figure. Make no mistake, these are real negotiations, with the multiple parties within the Democratic Party caucus carefully gauging what they can give up and where they stand to gain the most. We can only hope that these discussions are being conducted in good faith; and because the negotiating parties are all Democrats it is fair to remain optimistic. But the calendar is about to turn against the party’s hope to retain Congressional majorities in 2022 as Presdient Biden has now departed for the G20 economic summit in Rome in and the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. It is unhelpful that he arrives with nothing concrete yet in hand.

 

The question around which what Biden can realize his agenda revolves is: what exactly is Manchin’s whim? From a policy standpoint, he has a long history of whittling down price tags because it buffs his reputation as a fiscal conservative. He supports much of the components of Build Back Better, just for less time and less benefit per capita. These can and do add up to some big numbers, the largest of which is the $2 trillion gap between the president’s proposed $3.5 trillion and Manchin’s $1.5 trillion. What, in the end, does a reasonable compromise look like? We will find out soon enough; but we are still waiting, and many are tired of the wait. From the political standpoint Manchin routinely expresses his commitment to bipartisanship. That is central to his brand: he is the Democrat best able to work with Republicans. That is at the root of his resistance to changing the Senate’s filibuster rule — which in fact has been changed many times in the past, most consequentially in 1975, when the talking filibuster was done away with. As he is fond of reminding reporters, to now do away with the filibuster altogether means that the shoe will, sooner or later, be on the other foot. Democrats will not be very happy about that.

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Thomas Hart Benton, “Open Country”

Given these two pillars, Manchin has operated this year in a political twilight zone that always implied that he would ultimately join his fellow Democrats; but also with the threat that he might, following round after round of negotiation, decide to topple the entire project. The longer this has gone on, the greater the tension, the more fervent the negotiation with Congressional leadership and the president, whose stated position from the start has been that neither bill can “afford to fail.” Outside of Manchin and Sinema that phrase may have been uttered by each and every Democrat in Congress and the White House. This has caused rank and file voters, those who are merely sympathetic to the bills and many who are anxious to see them passed, to question the effectiveness of the Democratic Party and its leader. Once the outcome of each is settled it is possible that Manchin will finally be regarded as his party’s hero, or the quisling who not only cost them their majorities but who enabled Donald Trump to return to power. I, along with millions of other Americans, have no doubt that would mean more than a return to the recent and harrowing four years, but the effective end of the American democratic experiment. The prospect is terrifying in the abstract, with the real possibility of blood being spilled to a degree few Americans thought possible before January 6. Now we are seeing low level election officials, indeed members of local school boards routinely subjected to verbal abuse, physical intimidation and death threats. Routinely.

 

It is this stark contrast in the electoral outcomes likely to follow Manchin’s votes that has turned him into a pivotal figure such as we have rarely, if ever, seen outside of the Oval Office. Is he concerned primarily about his chance to win reelection in 2024? Is he primarily concerned in protecting his personal financial interest, along with his son’s, as founder of Enersystems, a coal brokerage that is a lucrative source of income? Is he preparing to switch parties? Is he simply being true to his heart? Not even his West Virginia voters are able to do anything but speculate. The fact that, like Sampson, he is in a position to bring a handful of Congressional Democrats down along with their Congressional majorities rankles many of his party colleagues, who nonetheless must treat him with a deference that masks varying degrees of frustration or anger, but which he unquestionably feels he deserves.

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Senators Krysten Sinema (AZ) and Joe Manchin (WVa)

Isn’t that the very nature of the human comedy, that single individuals or singular events can and occasionally do redirect the lives of so many that history itself goes down a different path. The actors in this play may be aware of this, but they have their part to play, their actions and decisions baked into their dna or the details of their personal history, their intimate relationships, the values learned at their parent’s knee or at Sunday school. But when you squint, when you stand back to observe the larger composition rather than the details, what do you see? I see a country balanced on the edge of a very sharp knife. On one side I see a high-minded social contract that has produced a very imperfect track record that has produced affluence, security and increasing inclusivity beyond the imaginings of any previous nation. On the other side I see a period of misrule and widespread abuse by a predatory and willfully corrupt inner circle of mob bosses who will be only too happy to permanently decimate the culture of democracy and stability so painstakingly cultivated over centuries in order to line their own pockets and insulate themselves from the rule of law. 

 

That the latter could well come to pass as a consequence of a single Senator’s folly not only feels wrong but unfair. The political effect currently is placing a thumb on the scale against the Senator’s own party. But abandoning support of that party is the opposite of what is required at this time. An expansion of the Democratic majority by even one or two members will effectively place Manchin on the political margins, where he belongs (still as a valued voice in favor of bipartisanship, no doubt; but he does not reside at or near the center of the Democratic Party). More likely he will simply lose his seat in 2024; even should he switch parties, as Arlen Spector did in 2009, he would likely lose it to an extremist in the primary. So, Senator, enjoy this moment while you are able. Whether he is acting in the name of self-interest, ideological expediency, or heartfelt conviction one can almost understand; most Republicans succumbed to what has become a de rigueur venality some time ago. This is not the same Republican Party that Richard Shelby switched over to join in 1994. But if Manchin thinks leveraging the influence that he currently wields is for the good of his current party and the country, he should take care. Timing is everything, and very little is left. He bears a great weight of responsibility for the present situation, and has brought both right up to the edge of an abyss.

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As President Biden departs for the two European summits a written framework has been submitted to Congress with a clear signal that both infrastructure bills will be passed into law during the first week of November. It remains a matter of speculation that this will happen. If they are passed, Senator Manchin will have managed to reduce the proposed $3.5 trillion nearly in half to $1.85 trillion, the cost of which will be covered by tax increases and reforms on the richest Americans, at least as projected. Programs eliminated include paid family and medical leave, reduction in prescription drug prices, certain Medicare benefits, tuition free community college, and a clean energy program to accelerate transition to renewables. Some programs receiving funding have had their time frames curtailed, such as the child tax credit, reduced to a one year program. The impact on the scale and reach of the new law, if passed, rests nearly entirely with Senator Manchin.