Six months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that a United States senator serving in just his second term, from a state with fewer than 2 million residents, would emerge as the second most powerful politician in the United States. Yet today we find that virtually all legislative action in Congress depends not on Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and not even on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but on Joe Manchin, the moderate-to-conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia.
Manchin has become the Senate’s fulcrum, with his crucial swing vote sought by Democrats eager to pass their far-reaching legislative agenda, and Republicans desperate to stymie what they believe to be extreme overreach by the opposition.
Manchin stands out in an evenly divided Senate in which the votes of virtually every other member can be counted on to support the party line on most issues. So, with a 50-50 split, one renegade, on either side of the aisle, can make a difference. And for the Democrats, that “renegade” is Manchin — who has already blocked President Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, has forced congressional Democrats to make changes to the economic stimulus bill in order to get his vote, is opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, opposes a mandate of background checks for most gun sales and has drawn a line in the sand in his opposition to proposed changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules.
Manchin claims that he is beholden to no one but West Virginia voters, the American people and his convictions. And the independence he has shown in the face of extraordinary pressure to support the party line seems to indicate that he is telling the truth.
Manchin says he wants to encourage bipartisan engagement and debate on significant legislative issues, rather than allowing rank partisanship and legislative gridlock to continue. And it appears that he is already achieving some success. For example, early reports indicate that Biden’s first bipartisan congressional meeting to discuss his $2 trillion infrastructure bill was designed, in part, to enable advocates to tell Manchin that the president tried the bipartisan approach and failed — in the hope that Manchin would appreciate the effort and reward it with his supportive vote.
Prior to the 2020 election, and particularly before the Georgia runoff Senate votes in January, we expressed support for the idea of a “divided government,” because it would encourage negotiation and compromise in order to get most things done. While that didn’t happen, and Democrats now “control” the White House and both houses of Congress, Manchin seems to be single-handedly changing the calculus and forcing that very engagement on issues in a way that presents a welcome opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together for the clear benefit of the American people whom they have been elected to serve.
That’s a good thing.