The Democratic senator from West Virginia opposed the bill’s inclusion of a $400-per-week federal unemployment bonus, concerned raising it from $300 might entice some to live off government payments rather than seek work. So as the hours ticked by on Friday March 5, his Democratic and Republican colleagues took turns huddling with him. By nightfall, Manchin signed off on a deal extending the $300 benefit five more months that also included tax relief. The bill passed the next day.
It would be one of many notable moments in the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency where Manchin, 73, commanded the attention of Washington.
As the most conservative Democrat in a polarized and evenly divided Senate, Manchin has been able to influence almost everything Congress touches these days: efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15, increasing taxes on corporations, the size of an infrastructure bill, even whom Biden is able to install in his Cabinet.
On Friday, Manchin told a West Virginia radio station he opposes a just-passed House bill to grant the District of Columbia statehood – another key progressive plank – because such a move should be done by constitutional amendment.
Manchin, who credits his outlook to his upbringing in tiny Farmington, insists he’s the same guy he’s always been: a moderate interested in finding unity in a city defined by division. But with a 50-50 Senate, a single Democratic senator can wield outsized clout simply by threatening to withhold their vote on key legislation.
Manchin opposes D.C. statehood bill: Joe Manchin says he opposes DC statehood bill, dealing blow to efforts to make nation’s capital the 51st state
It’s given Manchin a chance to shape not only what’s gotten approved in the important first months of the Biden presidency but also how. To Manchin, legislation before the Senate should be negotiated with both parties even if only one side ends up supporting the final product.
And it’s central to why he opposes doing away with the filibuster, a legislative hurdle many Democrats want to eliminate because it’s preventing congressional adoption of large-scale priorities such as climate change legislation, large tax hikes on big business and a broad expansion of safety net programs.
In a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY, Manchin said he never sought such influence. Asked about all the labels he’s been tagged with lately – president of the Senate, an obstacle to progress, a defender of the status quo – Manchin demurs. So who is he?
“Not those people,” he said flatly, sitting in his Capitol Hill office bedecked with West Virginia mementos and family photos including from his Farmington youth. “They talk about all this power stuff and everything. I didn’t elect to be the 50th vote. I didn’t elect for this position.”
But the senator known for his folksy approach also said he won’t stand by watching Congress being pulled apart by forces on the far right and the far left whom he contends are more interested in one-sided victories than lasting solutions.
“I’ve watched people who had power. It destroyed them. They let power go to their head. I’ve watched people that sought power thinking it would really make them something and they destroyed themselves. And I watched people that basically took advantage of a moment of time and made a difference,” he said. “I’d like to be that person.”
“If I can make a difference, make this place work again,” he continued. “Save the Senate. Save Congress as we know it.”
While Republicans applaud him for tapping the brakes on massive legislation such as the COVID-19 relief bill that passed in March and the $2.25 trillion infrastructure bill Biden recently proposed, some Democrats see Manchin as an impediment to the nation’s necessary development.
Manchin’s opposition to doing away with the filibuster has left him battling important voices in his party, including Hillary Clinton. She says GOP rigidness on a number of issues such as ballot access means Democrats are unable to achieve their agenda despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“We can preserve the filibuster, or we can preserve the voting rights of people of color,” Clinton tweeted recently. “But we can’t do both.”
Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said he’d have “no problem” going to West Virginia to make his pitch for a $15 minimum wage, free universal health care and significantly higher taxes on corporations, all things Manchin resists to varying degrees.
“I think we need a grass roots movement that makes it clear to Joe Manchin and everybody else in the United States Senate – including Republicans – that the progressive agenda is what the American people want,” Sanders told the Mehdi Hasan Show earlier this month.
For Manchin, a former governor who counts the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., as a mentor, and who represents one of the country’s reddest states, forcing people to negotiate with each other is the only way he’s ever known.
“I haven’t changed,” he told USA TODAY. “I’m fiscally responsible and socially compassionate. It’s the way I was raised. If you went to Farmington, you can tell exactly where I came from.”
Farmington, West Virginia, is a tiny town nestled in Appalachia’s rugged coal country near the Pennsylvania border.
It’s where Manchin, the high school quarterback, first absorbed lessons of humility, compassion and diligence, working in the grocery store run by his grandparents, Papa Joe and Mama Kay. There, he helped dispense food to miners and their families – especially when tragedy struck as it did Nov. 20, 1968, when an explosion in the Consolidated Coal No. 9 mine killed 78 miners.
The disaster, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, led to passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act the next year.
Manchin has held just about every elective office in West Virginia: state delegate, state senator, secretary of state, governor and now U.S. senator. He lost the 1996 gubernatorial primary but revived his political career four years later after patching frayed relations with the state’s unions.
West Virginia’s senior senator now lives in Charleston with his wife of more than 40 years, Gayle. But the avid pilot, hunter, and motorcyclist said he’s never forgotten what he learned decades ago growing up in Farmington.
“Accountability and responsibility,” he said during the interview. “You’re responsible for your actions.”
With a population under 300, Farmington has not changed much since Manchin left for good as a young man decades ago. Main Street, which runs through the Marion County hamlet about five miles northwest of Fairmont, is still dotted with a few businesses and a post office. A sign on Route 250 leading into town offers a nod to to its most famous son: “Home of Joe Manchin III, U.S. Senator, 34th Governor.”
The brick house where Manchin grew up remains (albeit bigger and occupied by sister Paula). It sits next to Buffalo Creek and the now-abandoned railroad tracks that carried trains Joe would occasionally jump on for a short joy ride.
His brother John, a doctor, opened up the Manchin Clinic in town. But the grocery store he worked at is now gone, though one of its original signs heralding “Papa Joe’s famous meats,” now adorns the side of another building. After years of not having a general store, Manchin helped the town attract a Family Dollar store a few years ago that has become a de facto successor to his grandfather’s business.
More recently, he helped broker a congressional deal in 2019 to keep health care and pensions for tens of thousands of retired miners and their families.
“Saved our pension. Saved our insurance,” said Donna Costello, a former Farmington mayor whose husband was a coal miner for 47 years and who worked with Manchin to open the Family Dollar store. “Joe does not forget where he came from.”
Manchin doesn’t get back to his home town much these days. And he’s lost the flat top he’d get at the local barber store every Saturday. But the senator said he still carries “the lessons of life” he learned from the tight-knit family he grew up in.
Still, Manchin would never have entered politics had he listened to his father.
The future senator had seen his family take care of down-and-out neighbors for years and greatly admired his uncle Jimmy Manchin, West Virginia’s legendary secretary of state. But when 35-year-old businessman Joe Manchin broached the idea of running for the state legislature, father John, who ran a furniture store in Farmington, tried to talk him out of it.
“It’s a horrible sport. It’s awful. Don’t get in it,” the senator recalls the paternal admonition. But his father ended up cheering him on when Manchin ignored the advice and won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1982 and then the state Senate in 1986. But John Manchin died before he got to see his son rise to be governor in 2004.
“I think that Joe, as he was going along, he knew where he was going, what he was working for,” said Meredith Banick, a family friend and the wife of a retired coal miner who still lives in Farmington. “And you could see that he had the possibility of going into politics. Shake the hand. Look you in the face. Give you some time. Make you feel like the person you are. Listen to you. Hear you out. Not walk away.”
Since January, Manchin has been instrumental in killing a plan to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15; (he wanted $11), limiting wealthier households from receiving stimulus payments in the COVID-19 relief bill; and his thumbs up (Interior Secretary Deb Haaland) or thumbs down (Budget director-nominee Neera Tanden) has been a deciding factor on Biden Cabinet appointees.
But his biggest impact could come yet as Biden tries to persuade Congress to pass his ambitious climate and infrastructure plan dubbed the American Jobs Act.
Manchin reiterated recently to CNN what he told USA TODAY in April, that he supports an infrastructure bill more focused on bridges, roads and broadband without the social safety and climate change programs Biden has proposed. The senator also opposes Biden’s plan to hike the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% to pay for it. After Manchin said he could go no higher than 25%, Biden said he was open to negotiation on the package.
And as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin stands in the way of Biden’s ambitious climate change proposals to cut fossil fuel emissions and end subsidies for coal and oil.
For most of the interview with USA TODAY, Manchin spoke in measured tones about several topics including the Jan. 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob on the Capitol, Biden’s progressive agenda, and his own push for bipartisanship. But asking him about how coal miners and their families felt about Washington trying to end their livelihoods touched a nerve.
“You want to know how West Virginia feels? It feels like returning Vietnam veterans,” he told USA TODAY, his voice rising and quickening. “We’re not good enough, we’re not clean enough, we’re not green enough and we’re sure as hell not smart enough for you, so you just cast us aside and go on. If it wasn’t for West Virginia and people like West Virginians who mined the coal, made the steel, built the factories. We’ve done all the heavy dirty lifting, and now cast us aside … Sometimes they forget how we got to where we are.”
Those who know him say Manchin’s politics have evolved with the times.
His loss in the 1996 gubernatorial primary to a liberal candidate forced the businessman to forge a relationship with unions who later helped revive his political career.
“That’s where he learned the big lesson and that’s where you see he’s able to talk to all sides today,” said Huntington, West Virginia, Mayor Steve Williams, who has known Manchin since they began serving together in the legislature some 30 years ago. “Joe was very conservative, strictly business: ‘This is the direction that we have to go in. To create jobs, we have to have a business-oriented governor.’ (His opponent) ate his lunch with labor.”
After his defeat, he worked to appeal to labor unions and in 2000 won the job his uncle once held: secretary of state. Four years after that, he won the governor’s mansion.
As governor, he pleased the right by privatizing an insolvent workers-compensation insurance system and cutting business taxes and pleased the left by abolishing the sales tax on food and, enacting a cap-and-trade law to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants, according to Chris Regan, a Wheeling, West Virginia, lawyer who served as vice chair of the state’s Democratic Party.
“The senator doesn’t have an overarching ideology like Bernie Sanders or (Kentucky GOP Sen.) Ron Paul does,” Regan wrote recently in the Atlantic magazine. “He is not determined to bring home pork in the way that his predecessor, Robert Byrd, did. Manchin has skillfully managed his image, to stay viable in a state that went from a Democratic to a Republican majority. He has done that by having a keen sense of what issues and bills are popular at any given moment and of how he can be seen as being on the right side of those issues for the electorate – no matter which party is in favor of them.”
Williams said it’s not just that Manchin can sense what most voters want, it’s also that he outworks the competition by making sure they know it.
“He can’t be defined by others,” the mayor said. “You go around the state, everybody knows Joe Manchin. Everybody has their own Joe Manchin story.”
For Manchin, being bipartisan isn’t just a matter of principle. As a blue dot in a red state, it’s a matter of survival.
When he was first sworn in to the state legislature in 1983, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 2 to 1, according to voter registration numbers. Back then, the governor was a Democrat. Both U.S. senators were Democrats. As were all four members of the U.S House.
Now, the governor and every federal officeholder except Manchin is a Republican. Not surprising in a state former President Donald Trump dominated in 2016 (by 42 points) and in 2020 (by 39 points).
John C. Kilwein, an associate professor of political science at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, said Manchin works hard to get around the state, no matter how red the community is, and he understands how popular issues like coal, gun rights and affordable health care are among Mountain State voters.
“He’s still successful because people remember he’s one of their own. But if you look at his margin of victory, it’s getting tougher,” Kilwein said, referring to his narrow re-election victory in 2018 over GOP state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. “He doesn’t want to upset an electorate that has become increasingly more conservative. An electorate that distrusts the Democratic Party … I can’t imagine a Democrat winning statewide in West Virginia other than Joe Manchin.”
Manchin has been a double-edge sword to his Democratic colleagues since he won a special election in 2010 to replace Byrd. They understand how important his seat is to them even as they fret about how he’ll vote on key issues.
It didn’t make environmental or gun control activists too happy when his most prominent campaign ad in the 2010 campaign featured him firing a shotgun at a copy of the Senate “cap and trade” bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like coal.
And his votes bucking his party to confirm former Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions as Trump’s attorney general in 2017 and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh a year later roiled progressives who slapped the social media moniker “#TraitorJoe” on him.
But Democratic leaders, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., understand his value.
Their anxiety no doubt rose amid rumors Trump was considering him for energy secretary or when he flirted last year with the idea of running for governor again. And they staged an “intervention” in 2018 when he was mulling an exit from the Senate.
Democratic senators who spoke with USA TODAY say they don’t publicly begrudge Manchin, understanding they wouldn’t be in the majority (Vice President Kamala Harris as president of the Senate casts tie-breaking votes) if Manchin’s seat was held by a Republican.
“Joe has been in public service in West Virginia for a long, long time and I have no doubt that he does his best to try to help the people of West Virginia,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading liberal voice in the party who has worked with Manchin on expanding certain Social Security benefits.
“We’re a big tent. Takes a lot of different opinions. Joe’s out there fighting for what he believes in. Bernie (Sanders) is too,” said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a moderate Democrat who joined Manchin in opposing the $15 minimum wage. “I don’t have a problem with either one of them.”
Manchin counts Republicans among his Senate friends as well.
He frequently dines with Maine Sen. Susan Collins and other GOP moderates to talk policy. And he’s invited some of them to “Almost Heaven,” his Washington houseboat that borrows its name from “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” John Denver’s homage to the Mountain State.
He also refuses to campaign against Senate GOP incumbents “so they don’t look at me as an enemy.”
Costello thinks Manchin’s small-town upbringing is why he reaches out to Republicans. And it helps explain his mission to keep the filibuster.
“He’s about bringing everybody to the table,” she said. “And at the end of the day, you may not win it all. Somebody leaves with a little bit of something. Somebody else leaves with a little bit of something. And they both come out winners. It’s better than having a whole lot of nothing, isn’t it?”
And he’s been consistent. Manchin was one of only three Democrats to oppose his party’s successful effort in 2013 to eliminate the filibuster for most presidential nominees. He opposed the GOP move in 2017 to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob only reinforced his view that the filibuster must remain, he said. And it’s why he also opposes efforts by Democrats to push through controversial portions of Biden’s infrastructure bill through a special procedure called reconciliation that requires only a simple 51-vote majority rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“It was never what reconciliation was designed for,” Manchin told USA TODAY. “And if they want to get exemptions so they can use it as much as they want to run this Congress, can you imagine when our Republican friends get in control? And it’ll happen. It’ll go full circle again.”