Manchin Is The New Lieberman

[ Posted Wednesday, February 24th, 2021 – 17:57 UTC ]

While everyone agrees on the obvious truism that President Joe Biden is now the most powerful Democrat in Washington, the person next in line in this new partisan power structure isn't as obvious. Because it is not actually Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer, or Nancy Pelosi, despite them being (respectively) vice president, Senate majority leader, and speaker of the House. No, instead the biggest power player in Washington after Biden is now Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He has now set himself up to be "the next Joe Lieberman." Under President Barack Obama, Lieberman acted as a virtual caucus of one, determining what was allowably "centrist" enough for him to support and vote for. Manchin has now thrust himself into exactly the same position, and by doing so will hold the keys to Biden's ultimate legislative success or failure for at least the next two years.

Democrats, of course, only hold the slimmest margin possible in the Senate, a majority of 51 to Republicans' 50 (counting Harris as the tie-breaker). This means that any one Democrat who crosses the aisle is going to almost guarantee failure for Biden, whether on a piece of legislation (through the budget reconciliation process) or for his presidential nominees (which now only need a simple majority, due to Harry Reid dropping the first "nuke," which eliminated the filibuster for cabinet appointees). With every single vote needed, each and every Democratic senator now really has the power to deny Biden a win. Most will not ever use this power, but Manchin is already signalling his intent to do so whenever he sees fit.

So far, Manchin has only threatened to do so (these votes have yet to occur) on one Biden nominee and one individual piece of the COVID-19 relief package currently under discussion -- the raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Manchin proposed an $11-per-hour raise instead. He has also stated his intention to vote against doing away with the legislative filibuster (the third, as-yet-undropped "nuclear option"), but in this he has been joined by another moderate Democrat (Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona). Manchin obviously seems completely comfortable flexing this power already, which may lead to all sorts of complications for Biden's agenda down the road.

Manchin has set himself up not as kingmaker, but rather as the sole dealmaker (or maybe "gatekeeper" is more accurate) in Congress; the one man who will rein in the most liberal parts of what Biden wants to accomplish. He is like unto a one-man Blue Dog caucus, to put it another way. Just like Joe Lieberman used to be, for Obama (most notably, on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare"). Lieberman had a little help, but it's fairly accurate to say that he almost-singlehandedly killed the "public option" from being included in Obamacare, much to the disgust of millions of Democrats.

Everyone in Washington already knows how powerful Manchin has become. A few days back, fellow Democrat Brian Schatz was overheard by a reporter in a Senate hallway wryly greeting Manchin as: "Your Highness." That's amusing, but only because there's more than a nugget of truth in it.

It remains to be seen how hardline Manchin will be on any one particular issue, since Biden's only been president for a month and since the pandemic relief bill is Biden's first big legislative push. Manchin went out of his way to announce he's voting against Biden's pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, on the spurious grounds that her "mean tweets" were somehow disqualifying -- when Manchin had previously voted to confirm numerous Trump appointees with even worse partisan records. He just announced today that he will be voting to confirm Deb Haaland as the secretary of the Interior, so perhaps he just picked one random Biden appointee that he could torpedo to make his point. We'll have to see what he'll do, in the weeks ahead, as more contentious nominees come up for confirmation votes.

Whether Manchin will indeed follow through on killing the $15 minimum wage depends first on it getting parliamentary approval for the budget reconciliation process (the parliamentarian could rule as soon as tonight on this question). But will Schumer and Biden actually push this to a floor-vote showdown, or will they attempt to meet Manchin in the middle (which would be a $13-an-hour minimum wage, if both sides split the difference)? Again, this remains to be seen. The pandemic relief bill is being treated as "must-pass" legislation by both Biden and pretty much all of the other Democrats in both houses of Congress, and a $15 minimum wage actually has overwhelming public support -- even in West Virginia, where it could help a whole lot of Manchin's constituents. What are they going to think when he trims this wage hike by two bucks (or four bucks) an hour?

Manchin has already pushed back against an effort to pressure him back home, when he threw a little hissy fit after Kamala Harris had the temerity to visit his state and talk to local media without (gasp!) first kissing Manchin's metaphorical ring. Manchin was seriously annoyed that Harris hadn't asked his permission to visit his state and talk to the media -- which showed a rather large amount of chutzpah, since Harris is actually vice president of all 50 states, and doesn't need anybody's permission to go anywhere she pleases (or Biden sends her), anywhere in the country. But it showed that Manchin is not going to take White House efforts to pressure him through his own constituents lightly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Of course, as with Lieberman, Manchin may not be the only Democratic senator to decide to occupy the spotlight on any given piece of legislation (back then, there was Max Baucus, who was almost as bad as Lieberman). Senator Sinema, obviously, is already flirting with the possibility. There aren't a whole lot of other Democratic senators from very conservative states left anymore, since Doug Jones lost his election in Alabama. One possibility is that either one (or both) of the new Georgia senators might pick an issue to buck their party on, in an effort to appear bipartisan or independent back home, although so far there are no signs of this happening (to be fair to them). Both campaigned heavily on all the pandemic relief package items, so they're solid for now, but they could always stray in the future to prove a point to their voters.

There's only really one way to change this dynamic and dethrone Manchin from his position of power as the Senate's legislative gatekeeper, and that is if the balance of power in the Senate itself changes. This likely won't happen until the 2022 midterms (unless someone dies in office or resigns in the meantime), and it could happen in either direction -- if Democrats lose a seat, Manchin won't really matter anymore, and if Democrats pick up even one more seat then his vote won't be the decisive one anymore either. But that is two years in the future.

For now, we'd better all get used to Manchin appearing on television a whole lot, and being the hairsplitter for what he deems allowable in any given piece of legislation. His fickleness has already launched him to being the most powerful Democrat in Washington after the president, and it's a pretty fair bet he's not going to give this role up any time soon. Joe Lieberman absolutely revelled in being the crucial vote for Democrats, to the point where he actually felt comfortable enough to speak at a Republican National Convention. Perhaps Joe Manchin won't take matters quite that far, but for the next two years we're all going to have to learn to live with his newfound power -- as the next Joe Lieberman.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “Manchin Is The New Lieberman”

  1. [1] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Nice parallel to Lieberman. Could you develop a bit more background on Manchin and his own position in W. Va. politics?

    Is he a regular politician - ambitious, self-centered, public minded when possible, in hock to various interest groups, basically honest in a political sense? Or is he a jerk politician - difficult, hypocritical, insensitive to colleagues, polarizing in his home state, not particularly liked by those who work with him?

    In other words, how bad is this going to get? Or how good could it be, if he and the president and the Senate leadership can get to understand one another and what each needs to get through the next two years without blowing up their respective careers and constituencies?

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    John, I think he is the former, more or less.

  3. [3] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    I say give him more Post Offices, more bridges, what ever it takes to buy him off. This show is for all the marbles if the Dems do not change this country for the better before the 22 mid terms they will be out of power for the next decade. Without the voter protection laws they are trying to pass the Repuigs will enact all kinds of schemes that will lock them in power for the foreseeable future decade. I hope Schumer can figure out the key to Manchin.

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I haven't even read this column yet, but the title alone brings back bad memories.

  5. [5] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    He [Manchin] just announced today that he will be voting to confirm Deb Haaland as the secretary of the Interior, so perhaps he just picked one random Biden appointee that he could torpedo to make his point.

    Okay, I'm officially joining the #DeathToManchin faction. And we're not going to be able to Primary his sorry ass until 2024.*yeesh*

  6. [6] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I "get" it that Manchin barely won in 2018, and he's from a less Liberal state blah blah blah.

    But aren't Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and the other
    Repug Senators who voted to Impeach in the same boat?

    Trump's gonna try to Primary them so unless Mitch can protect them it seems maybe we can find a vote or three amongst them, especially for solidly popular legislation like Joe's Covid Relief.

  7. [7] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    That imaginary conversation between a Dem and Repug Congressperson was a "Talking Points" approach that really appeals due to the brevity of each one.

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    You've touched on the notion that no one cares about how it gets done, they only care about results.

    I don't think that you can overdo reminding us of this reality, nosiree.

  9. [9] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    His Highness could always change parties if he gets too much pressure. As a Republican, his re-election would be easier and there's no telling what McConnell would promise him to do it (or already has). It's not clear why he sticks with the Dems.

    What would Harry Reid do?

  10. [10] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Here are the facts on this same subject:

    Per here are the 10 least Liberal Dem Senators:

    #1 0.69 Sen. Sinema [D-AZ]
    #2 0.64 Sen. Jones [D-AL]
    #3 0.59 Sen. Manchin [D-WV]

    #4 0.48 Sen. Tester [D-MT]
    #5 0.44 Sen. Coons [D-DE]
    #6 0.42 Sen. Peters [D-MI]
    #7 0.42 Sen. Hassan [D-NH]
    #8 0.40 Sen. Warner [D-VA]
    #9 0.34 Sen. Shaheen [D-NH]
    #10 0.34 Sen. Carper [D-DE]

    And here are the 10 least Conservative GOP Senators:

    #44 0.70 Sen. Lee [R-UT]
    #45 0.70 Sen. Graham [R-SC]
    #46 0.69 Sen. Alexander [R-TN]
    #47 0.65 Sen. Paul [R-KY]
    #48 0.64 Sen. McConnell [R-KY]
    #49 0.64 Sen. Portman [R-OH]
    #50 0.62 Sen. Burr [R-NC]
    #51 0.56 Sen. Collins [R-ME]

    #52 0.56 Sen. Shelby [R-AL]
    #53 0.50 Sen. Murkowski [R-AK]

    Jones is gone in Alabama (where's Roy Moore when you need him?) so that leaves Sinema [AZ] and Manchin [WV] the least Lefty. And there you have Collins [ME] and Murkowski [AZ] as the least Righty.

    Joe's Covid Relief plan has overwhelming public support. This could give these Senators the political cover they need to support the Democratic agenda. But they have to want it, obviously. Collins and Murkowski should constantly be wooed into jumping parties, methinks.

  11. [11] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    For grins and giggles here are the Ideology scores for the seven Repug Senators who voted against Trump in Impeachment 2.0:

    #31 0.76 Cassidy [R-LA]

    #36 0.74 **Sasse [R-NE]

    #39 0.72 Romney [R-UT]

    #41 0.71 **Toomey [R-PA]

    #50 0.62 **Burr [R-NC]

    #51 0.56 Collins [R-ME]

    #53 0.50 Murkowski [R-AK]

    **Toomey [PA] and Burr [NC] are not seeking reelection

    [Key: the numbers rank each in Conservatism, within the GOP. The lower each rank and the lower the Ideology score the less Conservative.]

  12. [12] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Whoops! Sasse [NE] is NOT retiring.

  13. [13] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    At any rate, due to the political climate in their respective states it appears that Collins is the lowest hanging fruit, Murkowski is mid-range and Sasse the toughest to get to vote for Joe's agenda.

  14. [14] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Interestingly, here are the ranking and relative Ideology scores for the other two GOP Senators who will not seek reelection:

    #49 0.64 Portman [R-OH]

    #52 0.56 Shelby [R-AL]

    No doubt that the retirement of four incumbent Repug Senators will complicate their efforts to retake the majority. If we can "flip" either Murkowski or more likely Collins we'd be in better shape. Perhaps Elizabeth Miller's Joecrush is rubbing off on me, but I find myself becoming more confident of his political acumen. Go, Joe!

  15. [15] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Hey, is this mic on?

  16. [16] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I say,

    Grab the RINOs and primary the DINOs.

  17. [17] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    **Dept. of Let Trump's Destruction Begin**

    Cyrus Vance, New York DA, just took possession of Trump's financial information.

    Vance later suggested the probe had broadened and could focus on potential bank, tax and insurance fraud, as well as falsification of business records.

    I guess we're about to find out how "leak proof" his offices are.

  18. [18] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i'd say there's still a solid 20% of republicans who are conservative on the issues and not taken in by trump's show. they may have voted for him transactionally at times to achieve their policy ends, but have no love for him or his impact on their party.

Comments for this article are closed.