Senator Joe Manchin: The Democratic Party’s Greatest Obstacle

Since its tumultuous inception, the Biden administration has run into its fair share of problems. Attempts by the administration to pass meaningful legislature have been fought tooth and nail by members of the Republican Party in both Chambers of Congress, despite the theoretical majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate. However, Biden’s staunchest obstacle comes from within: the Democrat from West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin III. Elected to an increasingly conservative state in 2010, Manchin kept a low profile in DC as a proud centrist and advocate of bipartisanship. But his unique political agenda brought him to the forefront of the Democratic party’s dysfunction in 2021, and his controlling vote has allowed him to stonewall the Build Back Better spending bill, an initiative supported by a vast majority of Americans which requires all 50 Democrats in the Senate, and the Vice President’s vote, to pass into law.

The Build Back Better bill is massive in scope. While President Biden initially claimed that the initiative would cost 1.75 trillion dollars, analysts have estimated the bill’s actual cost to be greater, in certain cases estimating its price at around 4.8 trillion. But this hefty price tag is well-justified. Build Back Better devotes funding to a myriad array of issues including universal preschool, affordable housing, clean energy, affordable healthcare, and sustainable agriculture, areas where the US has fallen behind relative to other developed countries. The bill’s breadth has drawn criticism, particularly from Manchin, who seemed to arbitrarily choose his attack points, even at one point suggesting that the bill be solely climate-oriented. Ironic given that was one of his biggest objections to the bill at different points in the process (and considering he made his fortune in the coal industry).

Manchin’s other objections have been varied and mostly unconvincing. He calls Build Back Better too expensive (although Democrats scaled back the bill to the price tag and requirements he specified) and says the child tax credit would create an “entitlement society.” This would seem against his own interest—in opposing the extension of the credit, Manchin directly endangers as many as 50,000 West Virginian children—and further undermines the validity of his stance against the bill as a whole. 

On December 19, just before the Senate recess, Manchin made the shock move of appearing on Fox News to excoriate the Build Back Better bill. “I’ve done everything humanly possible,” said Manchin (disregarding the fact that everything he asked for had been provided), “but I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation.” Washington was stunned, not only because Manchin had issued this reversal, but because they had seemed so close to a victory of both social importance and immense political gain and in private conversations Manchin had given the impression of his support. On January 4, Manchin again made public statements that seemed to seal the deal. “There is no negotiation going on at this time.”

It’s hard to characterize Manchin’s position as anything other than a power grab. Toeing the line of the 50-50 split, Manchin has been able to effectively hold the Senate hostage, making or breaking any bill put forward by his party. This position gives Manchin an unprecedented power to make demands. Democrats have negotiated for months on Build Back Better to only extend the child tax credit for a year, to reduce spending, and even to cut climate focus, but Manchin refuses to bite and give up his power, operating as one of Washington’s most corporate-donor-driven politicians in many years.

Manchin suffers a clear conflict of interest in his rejection of renewable energy as one of the biggest recipients of fossil fuel donations and heir to a coal fortune. His stagnance in the senate is encouraged by corporate donors, to whom he is a convenient way to make sure that the US government takes minimal action to combat their interests. Manchin’s newfound power is also causing him to reconsider his 2018 decision to not run again. In a 2021 interview, he told a reporter for Politico that “You never know. You don’t know. There’s always a chance, absolutely.” Manchin’s rise to power is extremely unsettling, and does not bode well for the future of the senate. If all it takes is a 50-50 split for a single senator to become the deciding factor for everything that passes through the senate, then it seems likely that the future will be filled with more deadlock. 

Considering the incentives of power and donations that are in play for him, it seems as if Manchin will continue to hold the senate in deadlock until intervention of some sort is taken. While the senate filibuster rules being reformed would help Democrats avoid being blocked by Senate Republicans, it will not stop opposition from Manchin, who may keep the reform from being passed in the first place. Thus, it seems that the first chance that the party might have to be rid of dependence on the West Virginian senator is a win at midterms. While it is a bit too early to see how the post-midterm balance of power in the senate will turn out, it is likely that it will stay under the iron rule of Joe Manchin until then.

By: Sebastian Lemberger