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Reporter’s Notebook: Being Joe Manchin

One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot since last week is “what is Manchin thinking?”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, after saying last month he couldn’t support the latest version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better environmental and social spending package due to the rising inflation rate, is back on board.

The cheers from Republicans and the right for Manchin quickly turned to boos and jeers. Operatives started tweeting every negative article about Manchin. Republicans at the state executive committee summer meeting started sharpening their political knives. Progressives who had been paddling out to Manchin houseboat to protest are now singing his praises.

I think the only people more upset with Manchin than Republicans are members of the coal industry and the environmental community – strange bedfellows indeed. Coal people believe the bill doesn’t do enough for them while environmentalists are not happy that Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act, the new name for Build Back Better, is tied to promises to reduce red tape on oil and natural gas drilling and pipeline permits.

So, what is Manchin thinking? I’m not a psychic and have no idea. But there are several factors at play here.

First, does this flip-flop politically hurt Manchin? Maybe, but it really does remain to be seen. It’s certainly not helpful in the short term, but I don’t think Manchin is thinking about the short term. I suspect he is thinking about what happens to him after 2022.

The Democrats learned some hard lessons last year with the bipartisan infrastructure package. Some believe that the race for governor of Virginia would have turned out better for former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe had the infrastructure bill passed before the Virginia elections.

If you recall, the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better were two separate bills (even if certainly congressional campaigns tried to make it seem like the infrastructure bill had some BBB spilled on it). At one point, progressives (and even President Joe Biden) tried to insist that one could not pass without the other. Then the Virginia governor election happened and McAuliffe was defeated by Republican Glenn Youngkin. It wasn’t long after that when the infrastructure bill finally passed.

It also wasn’t long after that when Manchin said he could not support BBB in December 2021, back when the bill had a $1.75 trillion price tag. Manchin has been outspoken against any bill that would add to the national debt and increase inflation. Regardless, the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., kept trying to bring Manchin back on board.

You see, the Democrats need to have a victory of some sort on BBB before the November elections. With likely voters motivated to vote after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the issues of abortion access back to the states, Democratic leaders need to pull out all the stops to keep people motivated. Scoring a victory with BBB would go a long way to at least keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.

This brings me to the second issue: Manchin has a superpower that only really lasts until November. He is the 50th vote in a 50/50 Senate. Democrats only hold the majority at all because Vice President Kamala Harris is the tiebreaker. If Manchin is going to score a deal, his time is now.

If the Republicans take the majority in the Senate in November, Manchin’s vote will remain important for getting past the 60-vote filibuster threshold, but Manchin and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., do not get along. If the Democrats can maintain control of the Senate and even pick up another seat, Manchin’s power gets diluted.

In either of the scenarios above, Manchin loses the power he has as the 50th vote. Also, it remains to be seen if Manchin will run for re-election in 2024, though I’ve heard this story before only to see him choose the Senate. But if that is possible, then this is Manchin’s last chance to get some concessions that could help West Virginia in the long run.

Manchin has negotiated a deal with Democratic congressional leaders to remove the red tape from oil and natural gas drilling and pipeline permits, including getting the Mountain Valley Pipeline project completed by the first quarter of 2023. One of West Virginia’s biggest problems is having a lot of natural gas, but nowhere for it to go. If we can start getting it to the Atlantic Coast and exporting it, that would be huge.

Democrats need a legislative win for Biden’s domestic and environmental agenda. Manchin needs a win to keep the state’s natural gas industry from stagnating. He also needs to stay on the good side of Democratic leadership once his 50th vote superpower goes away.

And unlike Rep. David McKinley, who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but spent six months trying to explain it to voters and losing to Rep. Alex Mooney, Manchin will have 2 1/2 years to explain himself. We’ll see if Republicans can keep fanning the flames against Manchin to defeat him in 2024, but these days people can barely remember the previous week’s news cycle.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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Hear Me Out Online…

* On the tenth episode of my podcast, Mountain State Views, I talk with Jason Pizatella, a former staffer and cabinet official for four West Virginia governors, getting an outsider’s perspective in state politics from a former insider. We talk about the now-paused special session on tax reform and abortion, Gov. Jim Justice’s style when dealing with the Legislature and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin being back in the news for his Inflation Reduction Act. – Steven Allen Adams

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