WASHINGTON – A year ago, Joe Manchin III was ready to leave.
As the most conservative Senate Democrat, he saw nothing but dysfunction and inaction when he looked around Capitol Hill. “This place sucks,” he has said repeatedly. As he has often done since arriving in Washington, he openly considered leaving to try to resume his old job: Governor of West Virginia.
Instead, he stayed for a second term. Now, as President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. prepares to rule from the middle in a Congress whose slim majority will force him to compromise on nearly every priority, Mr. Manchin, a centrist, suddenly finds himself in the center of relevance in the nation’s capital.
In his office one recent afternoon, sitting near a framed quote from President John F. Kennedy highlighting the independence of the political party, Manchin, 73, felt energized. He leafed through a proposal he was developing for a new coronavirus relief deal and said he envisioned a more moderate course for Congress.
“I think we have a golden opportunity to bring the country together and work in the middle,” Manchin said enthusiastically. “I’ll explain why: the numbers are so close to what the Democratic deputies lost. For Nancy Pelosi, she’s going to have to work with people who have a more moderate outlook than some of the people who pushed her to the left.
If Democrats are able to win two rounds in Georgia in January and take control of the Senate, any plans to enact a liberal agenda – such as increasing the number of Supreme Court justices – will have to go through Mr Manchin. . Likewise, if Republicans win at least one of Georgia’s races, allowing them to maintain control of the Senate, they’ll need centrists from both parties to help block progressive elements or pass compromise legislation.
This is the situation Mr Manchin said he considered more likely. He’s already gearing up for a power dynamic that he says would give him and three moderate Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah – a big role in determining what’s happening on the eve of Mr. Biden’s presidency.
With vice president-elect Kamala Harris with the power to sever ties, Manchin noted that it would only take two Republican defections to give Democrats a majority on any given measure.
“It’s up to everyone to start working together,” he said. “If they don’t, it doesn’t take many of us to say, ‘Guys, we gave you all a chance. We haven’t done our job for 10 years and we’re going to start. “
In recent days, Mr Manchin has worked to corral support for a new coronavirus stimulus package, touring the Capitol, asking colleagues in what price range they were comfortable and leading his chief of staff, Lance West, to write proposals. Mr Manchin said he thought about $ 1.2 billion might be okay to finally reach a deal – about half of what his party leaders were asking for ahead of the election.
He spoke to a bipartisan group of senators to try to strike a deal. They include the three moderate Republicans, as well as Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana; Senator Angus King, independent from Maine; and Democratic Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Warner of Virginia.
“Something has to be done before Joe Biden becomes president,” Manchin said. “There are people who will not reach February or March.”
He is also ready to fight with the progressive left, whose anger he has drawn when, in an interview this month, he answered a question about calls by some liberals to dispel the police, saying: “Defund, my butt. “
In response, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive brand of New York, posted a photo on Twitter of his gloomy gaze on Mr. Manchin as he applauded President Trump’s second State of the Union address.
“I guess she put the dagger gaze on me,” Mr. Manchin said. “I don’t know the young woman – really not. I have never met her. I understand that she is not very active with her bills or in committee. She’s more active on Twitter than anything else. “
It amounts to a sharp insult in a chamber where legislative prowess is appreciated. Mr Manchin said he will stand firmly against the agenda his party’s left flank is pushing.
“We are not going to cancel police funding, we are not for the new green deal,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. We’re not for Medicare for All – we can’t even pay Medicare for some.”
Mr Manchin is also a strong opponent of another step for which progressives have advocated, having spoken strongly against a move to change Senate rules so that the majority can pass legislation with a vote of 51, rather than to require bills to meet a 60-vote threshold to move forward. If Democrats gain control of the chamber, the change would allow Mr. Biden to bypass the Republican opposition and push through his political priorities.
“I can assure you that I will not vote to end the filibuster because it will break the Senate,” Manchin said. “If you have to blow up the Senate to do the right thing, then we have the wrong people in the Senate.
Instead, Mr Manchin said he and a group of like-minded senators in both parties – including many with whom he is discussing a new relief program – were considering a different rule change for empower the base. Their idea is to allow any bill approved by a committee with bipartisan support to go to the prosecution. It would dilute the unilateral power of the majority leader – currently Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky – to control what to do.
“Before we know for sure who will be the majority leader, we should change the way the Senate should operate,” Manchin said of the proposal, which is extremely unlikely to succeed.
Still, John C. Kilwein, the chairman of West Virginia University’s political science department, said Manchin would be “incredibly important” in the event of a 50-50 Senate. His positions will also serve as a useful cover for Mr. Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat and Minority Leader, against criticism they may face for not fully embracing the Progressive agenda.
“He has already dashed the hopes of progressives to get rid of the filibuster and clear the court,” Kilwein said.
In some ways, Mr. Manchin is a throwback to a bygone era. A gun owner who grew up in the small town of Farmington, W.Va., and lives on a houseboat in Washington, he keeps photos of children killed in the Sandy Elementary School shooting Hook 2012 on his office wall. Teaming up with Republican Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Manchin attempted in 2013 to develop modest gun safety measures to prevent such massacres from happening again, but their efforts stalled in the midst. of the bipartisan opposition.
He often says he learned to govern with “common sense” by watching officials in a small town grapple with problems such as putting on or putting out a traffic light.
Charles S. Trump IV, a Republican senator from the state of West Virginia who has known Mr. Manchin for three decades and is unrelated to the president, said the senator took after his uncle A. James Manchin, an “icon of West Virginia politics.” “The elder Mr. Manchin was an entertaining politician who rid the state countryside of thousands of abandoned cars and old tires.
As the state’s rural working-class white voters – who once voted Democrats in part because of close union ties – moved to the right, few Democrats could continue to win in West Virginia . The president has won the state by almost 40 percentage points this year. But Mr Manchin retained his seat in 2018, surviving the most difficult re-election challenge of his career, in part thanks to the trust he has built with voters over decades.
Mr Trump, the state senator, recalled how Mr Manchin, as governor, cut short a trip in 2006 to attend the Sugar Bowl in Atlanta, where he planned to cheer on university climbers from West Virginia, when there was a mining disaster in his country.
“He went straight home,” Mr. Trump said. “He knew it would be important for people during a crisis to have him there.
This year, Mr Manchin crossed party lines when he became the only Democratic senator to endorse Ms Collins in her fourth re-election attempt against a strong challenger, Sara Gideon, whom many in Congress expected to win. When Ms Collins defied the polls, Mr Manchin was one of the first to call and praise her.
“He’s brave,” Ms. Collins said. “I admire that he does the things he believes to be right, even though he is very upset by the Democratic leader for it.
Ms Collins said she looked forward to working with Mr Manchin on issues such as lowering prescription drug prices and a vast array of infrastructure. But the obstacles are considerable, with powerful groups on both sides of the political spectrum “demanding 100% respect” for their views, she said.
Ms Murkowski said she hoped a functioning Senate was not “a pipe dream of a bygone era”.
“For those of us who are most in the moderate camp, this is a very important role that needs to be played, and I look forward to playing a role in it,” she said. “I’m tired of the bitter partisan divide we’ve seen. I want to try to understand how we rule again for the whole country, not just for Republicans.