June 9, 2021
Civil rights groups can’t move him and neither can his colleagues. If anyone can sway Joe Manchin, it might be Joe Biden.
Four months after Biden helped secure Manchin’s vote for a party-line, $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law, the president is taking a different approach with the West Virginia Democrat who’s blocking multiple party priorities. Biden didn’t sound pleased last week when, during a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, he appeared to take a public swipe at Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) by citing two Democrats who frequently sided with Republicans.
But behind the scenes, the president — who spent nearly half his life in the Senate — is taking a more subtle approach to the senator.
In an interview, Manchin said Biden has not leaned on him to support the sweeping elections bill that the moderate Democrat publicly rejected over the weekend. Nor has Biden covertly asked Manchin to support another Democrat-only spending bill focused on jobs and the economy. Yet.
“The president respects the institution so much because he was here and knows it better than everyone else. He does not get involved,” Manchin said on Tuesday in the Capitol. “I already know where he is. I know the challenges he has, and I know basically the pressure he’s receiving all the time. We’re just trying to find a balance for it.”
Despite his jab at Manchin, Biden has largely remained quiet about the senator’s insistence that infrastructure bills be bipartisan and his opposition to both filibuster reform and the sweeping elections bill that expands voting access. Biden and his senior staff are regularly in tough with Manchin, according to a White House aide. And Biden appointed Manchin’s wife, Gayle, to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Manchin described Biden as “just a good human being, but also an astute politician who understands the process in the Senate.” Still, they don’t see eye-to-eye on everything.
“Biden’s very perplexed by Manchin. He doesn’t know how, or what he thinks. Or what he really wants,” said a lawmaker who has spoken with Biden recently. “That makes it hard for the president to ‘get him,’ so to speak.”
Known inside their party’s caucus as the “Two Joes,” Manchin and Biden’s relationship is the linchpin in the Democratic Party’s success over the next 18 months. Manchin is the squeakiest wheel in a 50-50 Senate that’s incredibly hard to tame, while Biden forged his reputation on cutting deals with lawmakers like Manchin, one of the last conservative Democrats in Washington.
Without Manchin, Biden simply cannot win — and the ever-quotable senator says he’s committed to making the president successful. What’s more, both are back-slapping throwback pols from small states where everyone knows them, and each often harkens back to when the Senate wasn’t a morass of partisanship and gridlock.
It’s all part of what Manchin’s colleagues see as a larger strategy. Biden can win Manchin over when it matters, but the former longtime Democratic senator must be strategic in both timing and substance.
“There’s a personal relationship between the president and Sen. Manchin. I think that can make a difference,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “He knows that he will have impact on Sen. Manchin. It would not be effective at this particular moment. But I think he’s waiting for that opportunity.”
Bipartisan talks are still playing out on infrastructure, for example, meaning it’s not yet time for Biden to secure Manchin’s vote on a more aggressive, partisan proposal. And the 50-member Senate Democratic majority lacks the votes to change the filibuster rules even if Manchin were to entirely reverse his hard stance against reforming it, making the West Virginian’s support for the sweeping elections bill a far less urgent matter for the White House.
There will come a time, however, when Biden needs Manchin to back him up. And Democratic senators are confident that the president will be far more successful with Manchin than either former Presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump were.
“Sen. Manchin is strong willed,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “But President Biden has dealt with plenty of strong-willed senators.”
Former Obama chief of staff, Bill Daley, said the White House has carefully controlled what is said about Manchin’s outsized influence in the 50-50 Senate.
“You don’t need somebody trashing a politician. [Biden] would be incensed if that happened,” said Daley. “Other politicians may do that, but you have not seen one hint of White House staff disgruntled, mad at Manchin, pissing on him.”
Still, Biden’s comment about Manchin’s record made waves in Democratic circles. Manchin said Biden’s jab about his voting record was “out of context” and shrugged it off. Then, in an elevator ride with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Daines said he was Manchin’s “body man” and briefly shielded him from a reporter.
“Joe Manchin is saving our country. Joe is trying to get bipartisanship,” Daines said. Manchin replied: “I need you to help me with that.”
Working with Republicans like Daines, Manchin sees his job “as saving democracy.” But Manchin’s bipartisanship-at-all-costs ethos has drawn the ire of House progressives and activists, particularly for his position against Democrats’ sweeping elections bill and his defense of the filibuster.
When asked about progressive anger toward Manchin and his refusal to back the sweeping legislation to overhaul voting access, White House press secretary Jen Paski said Tuesday ”we’re going to leave the name calling to others.”
“The president considers Sen. Manchin a friend,” Psaki continued. “He disagrees with him on voting rights and the bill the senator has expressed he won’t support … We’ll continue to seek ways we can work with Sen. Manchin even in areas we have disagreement.”
Psaki would not say whether liberal attacks on Manchin worried the White House as they work to ensure Manchin comes along on Biden’s infrastructure proposals and other major agenda items. She said she suspects that Manchin, rather than feeling hurt, has a “stronger backbone” and his colleagues said being filleted by liberals actually helps him in West Virginia.
Democratic senators have held two caucus meetings on the broad elections bill, and Manchin attended only the second one, listening intently the whole time. Just a few days later, however, he came out against his colleagues’ bill — prompting a flood of private conversations with Senate Democrats intended to sway him.
“I don’t think it’s ‘can Joe Biden reach him or not.’ And that’s the end of the conversation,” said a Senate Democrat, who estimated as many as 10 Democrats have spoken to Manchin about voting rights in the past two days. But this senator also said Biden will be a key ingredient to swaying Manchin.
And as one source familiar with the dynamics put it: “Manchin is still getting everything he wants and unless you take something from him, he’s not going to move.” That source said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is the one person who can move Manchin, describing Schumer as the person Manchin has the “strongest personal relationship” with and “whom he respects.”
Still, the majority of people who spoke about the relationship between Biden and Manchin said the president is key to moving Democrats forward. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich), a member of Democratic leadership, said “President Biden understands West Virginia. I think Joe wants to work with the president.”
Manchin has always marched to his own tune in the caucus, voting more often with Republicans than his colleagues and opposing things like gutting the filibuster on nominations in 2013. But now he’s doing it at a time of total Democratic control and in a split Senate, making him the hardest Democrat to sway on big issues of the day and a pivotal vote that determines the success of Biden’s agenda.
Former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who worked alongside both Biden and Manchin, said it’s in Biden’s “DNA” to “try to find agreements. And he’s going to keep trying.”
“Joe Manchin’s the same,” said Baucus.
Sam Stein contributed to this report.