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Joe Manchin: The West Virginia Senator Blocking Joe Biden's Agenda

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat representing West Virginia, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 9, 2021.

A long-simmering battle within the Democratic Party came to a head this week when Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced he will not support a sweeping package of voting rights reforms because no Republicans are willing to vote for it.

At the same time, he repeated his vow to vote to protect a Senate rule, called the filibuster, that allows a minority of the body to prevent pieces of legislation from receiving an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

Manchin's announcement in an op-ed article, published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail newspaper on Sunday, sparked fury among those on the political left, who say his stance has repercussions far beyond the For the People Act, the voting rights bill that his article effectively scuttled, and imperils the entire agenda of President Joe Biden's administration.

Depending on who is describing it, Manchin's approach to lawmaking is either a throwback to a more genteel era of bipartisan compromise, or an unconditional surrender to political opponents who never had any intention of compromising in the first place. In either case, it has put the senior senator from West Virginia in a brighter spotlight than at any other time in a long political career.

Who is Joe Manchin?

Manchin comes from the small town of Farmington in the northern part of West Virginia, a region that once boasted major coal mines and which attracted many Italian immigrants, including Manchin's ancestors. (His family name, originally Mancini, was Americanized to Manchin.)

The Manchin family became politically influential in a state that in the senator's youth was a bastion of the Democratic Party. Manchin's father and grandfather, both Democrats, served as mayor of Farmington, and his uncle served in the state legislature and later as secretary of state and treasurer.

FILE - Gov. Joe Manchin, left, is sworn into office for a second term at the Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, Jan. 19, 2009.
FILE - Gov. Joe Manchin, left, is sworn into office for a second term at the Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, Jan. 19, 2009.

Manchin worked his way up through state politics beginning in 1982, serving in the state's House of Delegates and the State Senate, before being elected West Virginia's secretary of state in 2001, and then governor in 2005. In 2010, he won a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat that opened with the death of Democratic Senator Robert Byrd.

Political leanings

While the West Virginia he grew up in was heavily Democratic, Manchin is now the sole member of his party in any statewide office, and is its only member in the state congressional delegation. In his most recent election, Manchin prevailed in 2018 with only 49.6% of the vote. By contrast, Donald Trump won West Virginia with 68% of the vote in 2016 and 69% in 2020.

That may be, in part, why Manchin is farther toward the political right than other members of his party. But political expediency may not explain everything.

A political mentor to Manchin, Byrd was the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, representing West Virginia for 51 years. He was also a dedicated Senate institutionalist who wrote two books about the body, a supporter of the filibuster, and a strong believer in the ability of senators to put party aside and work together for the good of the country.

But Byrd's legacy — and the legacy of the filibuster — is complicated. The founder of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter in West Virginia in the 1940s, Byrd later renounced his connection to the racist organization. However, he also filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.

Byrd's influence

Some of Byrd's beliefs about the way the Senate can and should operate seem to live on in Manchin, despite dwindling evidence that meaningful cross-party cooperation is possible.

"I think he's a guy who has certain commitments that maybe are a little out of step with the way American politics has emerged over the last decade," said Richard Brisbin, an emeritus professor in the political science department at West Virginia University.

FILE - Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., presides over a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 26, 2007.
FILE - Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., presides over a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 26, 2007.

"I really think, deep in his heart, he thinks people can come together and get along and solve problems," Brisbin said. "And I just think that's very difficult in the kind of political climate we have in the United States at present. And I don't think that there are many politicians, highly visible politicians in national politics, who are in his camp, particularly among the Republicans, but also to some degree among at least half the members of his own party."

'No' vote on ending filibuster

In a Senate with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, Democrats' advantage derives from the ability of Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties in a party-line vote. However, the filibuster requires 60 votes to end debate on a bill. This means that with a few exceptions, Democrats need to persuade 10 Republicans to side with them in order to get any legislation passed.

Republican leaders in the Senate have essentially promised to use the filibuster to block everything Democrats and Biden want to do.

"One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week.

Continued Republican obstruction has led to increasingly loud calls from Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, which they could do with a majority vote amending the body's rules that would be immune to the filibuster. Manchin has consistently poured cold water on his fellow party members' hopes that he will side with them on a rule change.

By pairing a renewed commitment to saving the filibuster with the announcement that he would not vote for the Democrats' package of voting rights legislation, Manchin sparked an especially sharp reaction from many on the left.

"Joe Manchin is doing everything in his power to stop democracy and to stop our work for the people, the work that the people sent us here to do," Congressman Jamaal Bowman said in a CNN interview on Monday.

Early support for bill

The voting rights legislation that Manchin will not support is particularly important to Democrats in light of the multiple state-level laws being passed by Republican-dominated legislatures that will make it more difficult to vote, and in some cases, give legislators the authority to overrule local elections officials and potentially overturn the results of an election.

FILE - Voters line up outside a polling place in Charleston, W.Va., Oct. 21, 2020, the first day of early in-person voting in the state for the November 3 election.
FILE - Voters line up outside a polling place in Charleston, W.Va., Oct. 21, 2020, the first day of early in-person voting in the state for the November 3 election.

What is particularly galling to Manchin's Democratic colleagues is that his objections to the voting rights bill have nothing to do with its contents. In fact, he co-sponsored substantially identical legislation in 2019.

His objection is that the bill will not receive any Republican support in Congress, and that passing it along party lines, as he wrote, "will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy."

Detractors point out that in 2019 when Manchin supported the bill, it also had no Republican co-sponsors and would likely have received no Republican votes on the Senate floor.

A unique position

While critics of Manchin on the Democratic side claim he is standing in the way of Congress making progress in the current session, not everyone agrees. Some expect that bipartisan cooperation isn't only possible but likely — just not on the issues the Democratic left is most passionate about.

"Senator Manchin is a Democrat, who represents West Virginia, which is a state trending more Republican," said Michael Thorning, associate director of governance at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "Perhaps he is uniquely representative of the situation that we see in Congress, where you have an evenly divided Senate, and a House that is very, very tight."

He added, "The last election did not produce a result that suggested one party had a very strong mandate. So, you take a senator like Joe Manchin, someone who has fairly moderate policy positions that match up with the voters of his state — he's going to want to steer the federal policy debates toward that."

Thorning said that far from dooming the Senate to a session with no progress, Manchin's stance on the filibuster may allow senators the political space they need to compromise on other issues, including an infrastructure bill and criminal justice reform.

"Those would be big accomplishments, ones that could not be achieved in recent years," Thorning said.