Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants

WASHINGTON (thehill): The fight over Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending bill is reviving one of Washington’s most perennial questions: What does Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) want?

Manchin, who occupies the proverbial eye of the 50-50 Senate, is back in the spotlight amid a highly fraught debate over the heart of President Biden’s legislative agenda. He’s backchanneling with his colleagues, shadowboxing with progressives through the media and feeding GOP hopes that he’ll scale down the bill.

Manchin, for his part, says he’s being clear in an effort to not catch anyone off guard. 

“Everybody knows my position,” Manchin told reporters in one of several gaggles packed into the Senate’s two-day work week. “I’ve been very clear, very open. I didn’t want anybody to say it was a surprise.”

Manchin has drawn a hard line on not accepting a $3.5 trillion bill and urged his colleagues to hit “pause” on the legislation altogether—a request he reiterated during a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting this week.

“Guys, my opposition is pretty well stated, I don’t know what else to tell you,” Manchin told reporters.

Asked about Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowing that the bill will be $3.5 trillion, Manchin added: “God bless him.”

Manchin isn’t just any senator. The chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he’s tasked with drafting some of the clean energy and climate provisions, including a Clean Energy Payment Program that would offer incentives to transition the nation to clean energy. Democratic senators who view the program as a priority have been trying to win over Manchin.

The House bill includes the clean energy program, but Manchin has been cagey about his own plans. “I’m not going to negotiate this in the press, I’m really not,” he said.

Manchin isn’t on the health and education committee but he’s pitching income-based caps for some of the benefits being drafted under the committee’s jurisdiction inducing universal pre-K and the two years of free community college.

And he’s been in communication with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), even though he isn’t a member of the committee either.

Wyden is responsible for the herculean task of figuring out how to pay for the bill including how high to raise the corporate tax rate. Though Biden pitched 28 percent and House Democrats settled on 26.5 percent, Manchin has signaled that he thinks it shouldn’t go higher than 25 percent.

“I’ve talked to him a number of times and he’s had constructive ideas,” Wyden said about his conversations with Manchin.

The spending bill isn’t the only thing that’s thrown attention back on Manchin. He was part of a group of Democratic senators who rolled out a new voting rights bill this week. And, as one of Democrats’ few holdouts on changing the filibuster, he’s the caucus’s unofficial emissary to try to win over the 10 GOP senators the bill would need to break a 60-vote filibuster and met with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“We have, as you know, Senator Manchin who believes that we should try to make this bipartisan. And we’re giving him the opportunity to do that with the bill that he supports,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters about Manchin’s mission.

But it’s Manchin’s stance on the spending package that is sucking up much of Washington’s political oxygen, and forcing Biden and Democratic leaders to solve the tricky parlor game of what will win him over.

Senate Democrats had hoped to have their committees done drafting their bill by Wednesday, but they missed that deadline as they grappled with how to unite all 50 of their members.

Manchin met with Biden at the White House on Wednesday night, after the president met earlier the day with fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Asked how Democrats could craft the bill without knowing what Manchin and Sinema would support, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, acknowledged that there was an “effort underway” to get all 50 unified behind a bill but that it would take “personal negotiation.”

Sinema, like Manchin, has signaled opposition to the top-line figure and could be just as big of a headache. But Sinema, unlike Manchin, largely eschews the national press, while Manchin hit up the Sunday shows to detail his thinking on the spending package that is intended to include top Democratic priorities on immigration, climate change and Medicare.

Manchin’s stances and omnipresence in the media at times sparked unintended humor this week.

His TV appearances spun off a Manchin-inspired piece in The Onion, while a shirtless man won attention by calling out to Manchin as he spoke with reporters.

“Don’t make us go broke, Joe. …We’re counting on you,” the shirtless man yelled as Manchin and several reporters shuffled by, earning a quick “yes sir” in response from Manchin.

But Manchin’s public posturing is irking progressives, who argue the entire debate shouldn’t revolve around their moderate counterpart. Progressives are threatening to flex their own political muscle after initially pitching a $6 trillion bill.

“Everyone’s a Joe Manchin,” Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said during a strategy call. “Everyone’s got power.”

Asked about Manchin’s influence on the debate over the spending package, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) responded: “We have 50 Democrats. We need all of them.”

Manchin’s public criticism has sparked GOP hopes that his opposition could end up watering down the Democratic plan. Republicans will be able to offer whatever changes to the spending bill they want before a final vote in the Senate and because of the thin margins they only need one Democrat to side with them to get a change through.

McConnell, during a string of recent stops in Kentucky, put a spotlight on Manchin and Sinema as the two Senate Democrats who could scale back the plan.

“I pray for Manchin and Sinema every night, give them a lot of love, wish them well,” McConnell said at one stop.

Asked what the GOP strategy is on Manchin, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2 quipped: “I tell people I’m mowing Joe Manchin’s lawn every week.”

 “Whatever he needs,” Thune added, “cleaning his place of residence, sweet talk.”