Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has a reputation for finding himself in the thick of things, and that will only increase next year. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

Joe Manchin has a choice as he enters what is likely his last term in the Senate: Be a MAGA conservative Democrat or embrace his party’s ascendant left wing.

Or maybe in his own way, he’ll try to do both.

Story Continued Below

The West Virginia moderate just won reelection in the most Trumpy state in the country and is already trying to re-establish a frayed relationship with President Donald Trump, who went all-in against him during the midterms. At the same time, he’s trying to beat back criticism from progressives, who argue he’s too friendly to the coal industry to lead Democrats on the Energy Committee.

It’s classic Manchin: Committing to work with everyone, no matter how much they might be at odds.

“I have a constituency group in my state and I have a constituency group within my caucus,” Manchin explains in an interview. “I want to make sure I’m attentive to all.”

Manchin has a reputation for finding himself in the thick of things, and that will only increase next year when he becomes one of the few moderates in either party left in the Senate. The president is eager for bipartisan accomplishments ahead of his 2020 reelection bid and Manchin will be seen as a prime target for cooperation.

Yet the former governor has said he doesn’t want to run again for his Senate seat and so will no longer have to worry about backing Trump’s agenda to boost his reelection chances. And as ranking member on the energy panel starting next year, Manchin has a prime opportunity to shape big-ticket legislation, particularly if his party takes back the majority in 2020 and makes him chairman.

“Sen. Manchin, by his very nature, wants to be in the middle of where the action is,” said GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a fellow West Virginian. “He’s going to continue to do that very aggressively whether it’s through the committee, whether it’s through the president. I think he’s agnostic: However he can get into the middle of things, he’s going to be in the mix.”

Manchin had lunch with the president earlier this month and pledged to work with him going forward. He also pushed Trump to help resolve a pension crisis facing miners and seek a bipartisan deal on immigration. Yet since winning reelection, Manchin has also helped Democrats block one of Trump’s judicial nominees, reversed himself on a Trump federal energy pick over his climate views and voted to spike a Treasury Department rule. He’s also not so sure about backing Trump’s $5 billion in border wall funding that he endorsed during the campaign.

Occupying the Senate’s middle also means that no matter what Manchin does, he’s going to get lit up by critics. The senator was popular enough to outperform Hillary Clinton by 23 percentage points in November, but also elicits strong feelings among skeptics on both the left and right that somehow think he’s always conspiring against them.

Though Manchin’s Democratic colleagues argue he’s vastly superior to a Republican, progressive groups bash Manchin’s continued presence in the Democratic Caucus as an embarrassment and cite his vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a reason they’ll never embrace him. The vote might have helped seal his reelection, but it did little to rebut his reputation as the chamber’s least loyal Democrat.

“He has a ‘D’ next to his name, but he’s a conservative politician,” said Josh Nelson, co-director of CREDO Action. “We do think the rare circumstances where Manchin does vote the right way are offset by the damage he does to the party brand and, frankly to the media narratives, where he’s providing bipartisan cover.”

Conservatives acknowledge Manchin’s the best Democrat they could hope for atop the Energy Committee but wonder whether he’ll be pulled leftward now that he doesn’t have to face the voters again.

“[Democrats] gained seats that they cannot hold if they go full tilt the way the progressives want. But the progressives are the money, the organization and responsible for delivering the House back,” said Tom Pyle, president of the libertarian-leaning American Energy Alliance.

On energy policy, Pyle wonders: “Who are we going to get: West Virginia Manchin or Beltway Manchin?”

Manchin says they are one and the same — and embraces his critics, who he says wouldn’t trash him if they knew him better: “My door’s open.”

Manchin says he’s going to work to protect the environment, but he’s sure not going to turn his back on coal either.

“I don’t know a person in West Virginia that wants to drink dirty water and breathe dirty air. Not one,” Manchin says. “I want to make sure that we have all the technology in place to use all of our energy the cleanest humanly way possible, period.”

Manchin finds himself with advancing seniority in his party because of a disastrous election for moderate Senate Democrats. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana eked out a win, but three lost: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

The fourth Democratic incumbent to lose, Bill Nelson of Florida, left a void at the top of the Commerce Committee. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) chose to take that post, leaving the Energy slot open for Manchin to grab after other more senior Democratic Caucus members, including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), stayed on other committees.

“He should have that position. He’s worked hard, he’s earned it,” Donnelly said. “Our party should have a big tent; we’re more successful when we are. And when we don’t act that way is when we struggle.”

Sanders wasn’t quite as effusive when asked about Manchin: “Thank you for your interest in the Yemen vote.”

To win over skeptics on both sides, Manchin is meeting with Cantwell to go over the transition and to make sure her priorities don’t get dropped. He’s also met one-on-one with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about the miner pensions.

And Manchin says he hopes his time with Trump leads to some nice tweets after the president said last month that Manchin’s vote on Kavanaugh came so late it “doesn’t count.” Manchin said he personally asked Trump to lean on McConnell to come up with a long-term fix for the pensions, or at least tweet about it.

“I just told him: ‘You gave it all you had and that election’s behind us, it happened a couple Tuesday’s ago. So let’s go forward,’” Manchin recounted telling the president this month. “I found out people in West Virginia like Donald Trump and they like Joe Manchin. So they’re telling us to work together.”

Read More

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here