Voices: Democrats are done talking about Joe Manchin – and he’s done talking, period

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Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia on Tuesday (REUTERS)
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia on Tuesday (REUTERS)

On Tuesday, I asked Senator Sherrod Brown about the legislation that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is negotiating with conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“I don’t talk about the reconciliation,” the Ohio Democrat said in reference to budget reconciliation, the legislative tactic that Democrats plan to pass the bill with only 51 votes to sidestep a filibuster. Brown said he’d talked about it enough, and that talk simply ratchets up expectations, “then nothing happens and you guys write about it, as you should”.

Brown’s refusal to talk about negotiations just about summarizes how Democrats might feel about Manchin these days. They have learned the hard way that they can’t invest too much hope in the idea that negotiations with him might yield a breakthrough. So now they just take umbrage whenever they are asked about him.

Last week, it was the turn of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. When a reporter in a gaggle talked about the reconciliation bill, he prefaced his question to her by saying he wouldn’t ask her to comment on Manchin. Her response: “Good, because I wouldn’t do it.”

Democrats, of course, have been riding the legislative merry-go-round with Manchin on budget reconciliation for more than a year now. They split Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill into two, coming up with a bipartisan bill that addressed conventional infrastructure like roads and bridges, and then packing everything they knew Republicans wouldn’t like into a budget reconciliation bill – the monster legislation that became known as Build Back Better.

They did so knowing all along that they would need to mollify Manchin, the most conservative member of their caucus, if they hoped to pass the legislation with just their 50-seat majority and Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. House Democrats passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill without getting a hard commitment from Manchin that he would support a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better, which he summarily took out behind the barn and shot last December.

But this past month seemed to show real potential for a rekindled bill. Manchin and Schumer began talks about a greatly pared-down version that would focus on capping prescription drug costs, continuing subsidies for Obamacare, raising some taxes and combating climate change. Then Manchin suddenly said he wanted to pause discussions about raising taxes and combating climate change after last week’s Consumer Price Index report showed that inflation jumped 9.1 per cent in the past year.

When I asked Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the main Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal, what he thought about Manchin’s call for a pause, he was frank about the Democrats’ options: “Again, we have to keep the door open. We have to try to find a resolution if possible. If not, then President Biden as commander-in-chief has executive authority to take significant actions to protect our country and to protect the planet.”

For what it’s worth, Manchin seems wholly uninterested in discussing aspects of his negotiations with the Majority Leader or with his colleagues. At a meeting among Senate Democrats on Tuesday, Manchin was absent.

But he’s also not willing to cede control. After the Washington Post reported that Biden was considering declaring a climate emergency on Wednesday (the White House said that won’t happen, but that it might in the future), Manchin initially told ABC News: “Let’s see what the Congress does. The Congress needs to act.”

And later on, he made clear he was done talking. When I caught him in the tunnel connecting the Senate office buildings to the Capitol, he stalled reporters by chatting it up with Democratic Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado, even giving him a hug – but refused to speak to reporters. “Just get out of my way, if you will,” he said. “Okay, I’m going to go vote.”

One might imagine many Democrats want to do exactly that.

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