The Senate’s wild card
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is part of a rare buttress against his own party’s efforts to pass radical legislation, but his own voting history makes it hard to predict where he’ll land
Kristan Hawkins remembers the morning she summoned a ride from Uber and texted pro-life activist David Daleiden: Come help me convince Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that your investigative videos of Planned Parenthood are legit.
Hawkins, president of the pro-life group Students for Life of America, was in Washington, D.C., in part to urge Manchin—who describes himself as pro-life—to break with his party and defund Planned Parenthood.
Daleiden had flown into D.C. on a red-eye from San Francisco, the city where prosecutors had recently charged him with 15 felony counts related to his undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing how they secure and charge fees for aborted baby parts to research companies.
The videos had jolted Manchin into voting to withhold federal funding from the abortion giant in 2015. The senator said he was “very troubled by the callous behavior of Planned Parenthood staff in recently released videos, which casually discuss the sale, possibly for profit, of fetal tissue after an abortion.”
But by the May morning in 2017 when Hawkins spoke with Manchin in D.C., the initial jolt was fading: Hawkins says Manchin told her he learned the Planned Parenthood videos were heavily edited or doctored, and he had decided to change his vote. A month earlier, he had posed for a photo with a woman at an event who was holding a sign reading, “I stand with Planned Parenthood.”
Hawkins assured Manchin the investigative videos were accurate and says she remembers the meeting as cordial. Before parting, Manchin posed with members of Hawkins’ group holding a sign that said, “We don’t need Planned Parenthood.”
Later that day, Hawkins and Daleiden shared an Uber ride to Manchin’s office on Capitol Hill to discuss the authenticity of the videos and offered to provide any evidence that might be helpful. Again, the meeting was cordial. “Joe Manchin is a very nice man,” says Hawkins, a native West Virginian. “But he’s also a very savvy politician who does what he needs to do to continue advancing his career.”
Manchin continued voting to allow funding for Planned Parenthood.
The split-screen shot of Manchin posing with activists on opposite sides of the Planned Parenthood debate illustrates the political tug-of-war that’s grown only more intense for Manchin since President Joe Biden took office.
With a 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate, the wild-card senator—known sometimes to vote with Republicans—holds the power to thwart portions of Biden’s agenda that he deems too costly or unwise, but it’s unclear exactly where he’ll draw lines. Meanwhile, he’s found an unlikely ally in Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., in resisting Democratic calls to end the filibuster, though Sinema remains far more open to legislation like the Equality Act that conservatives say could gut religious liberty.
The lifelong Catholic from West Virginia and the former Mormon from Arizona with no current religious affiliation make for an odd couple that sometimes infuriates Democrats, intrigues Republicans, and leaves voters from both parties wondering, Which side will pull the rope across the line first?
MANCHIN SOMETIMES SEEMS to relish the attention that comes with being a swing vote in a contentious Senate, but he also nurses an outward dislike for D.C. that lets his constituents know he’d rather be home.
When he’s in Washington, Manchin lives on a houseboat—Almost Heaven—named after a line in John Denver’s famous anthem about West Virginia. The senator told Politico in 2017 that he doesn’t want to put down roots in D.C.: “You buy something permanent, they think you like the place, and I sure as hell don’t like the place.”
Almost Heaven may not always feel that way during the bipartisan happy hours the senator hosts for lawmakers and staffers, but the floating social hour does get people talking who likely wouldn’t mingle otherwise.
Manchin’s mingling with the other side has drawn consternation from members of his own party for years: After President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Manchin met the president-elect at Trump Tower and eventually voted to confirm most of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
He was one of three Democratic senators to vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the only Democrat to advance Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
But Manchin also showed a willingness to cross Trump and sour their political bromance. Late last year, he voted against confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, saying he thought the selection of a justice should wait until after the looming presidential election.
In 2020, Manchin voted to convict Trump after his first impeachment. He publicly wrestled with the decision and quoted his predecessor Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who voted to acquit President Bill Clinton more than 20 years earlier: “There will be no winners on this vote.” Manchin’s decision provoked a new nickname from a frustrated Trump: “Joe Munchkin.”
It wasn’t his first nickname. A year after the senator endorsed Hillary Clinton for the presidency in 2015, Clinton infamously declared her energy policies were “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” That wasn’t a popular campaign promise in West Virginia’s coal country. When Manchin expressed his displeasure but maintained his endorsement of Clinton, some constituents branded him “Traitor Joe.”
Still, Manchin has stayed popular enough to win three elections to the U.S. Senate, and he remains the lone statewide elected Democrat in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. His rise to the Senate came after he served as a state legislator, then secretary of state, and finally as the first Catholic governor in the state.
His secret sauce seems to be a blend of his own family’s long political history in West Virginia, his mix of conservative votes, and a personal charisma that makes him a natural at country cookouts and rural barbecues.
Manchin hasn’t declared whether he’ll run in 2024, when he’ll be 77 years old. If he doesn’t, it’s unclear whether another Democrat could win his seat or if the last domino will fall in a Republican sweep of the once solidly Democratic stronghold.
That’s partly why Democratic colleagues tolerate Manchin, despite his penchant to break from his party on certain votes: To hold a Democratic seat in West Virginia, they’ve needed Manchin to win.
Now they need him to vote with them.
THAT’S BEEN HARDER TO SELL in the early months of the Biden administration. Manchin bucked the president’s call for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a COVID-19 relief package in February. (The senator suggested $11.)
Shortly after the election, Manchin said he wouldn’t defund the police, pay for a Green New Deal, or vote for Medicare for All, reprising a line he’s used in the past: “We can’t even pay for Medicare for some.”
Manchin isn’t supporting Biden’s mammoth infrastructure plan as it’s currently written, saying he’s worried about a higher corporate tax rate and the realities of paying for the $2 trillion plan that’s just the first of the White House’s two-part proposal.
And he’s refused to budge so far on Democratic calls to eliminate the filibuster—the legislative provision that requires a 60-vote threshold to move forward with most forms of major legislation, instead of the simple majority Democrats could achieve if all their party’s 50 lawmakers and the tie-breaking Vice President Kamala Harris fell in line.
After years of saying the filibuster should stay intact, Biden has said he’s now open to reforming it. Others have been more caustic: Former President Barack Obama once lambasted Republican suggestions to eliminate the filibuster, saying it was important to “rise above an ‘ends justifies the means’ mentality because we’re here to answer to the people—all of the people—not just the ones wearing our party label.”
But last summer, Obama called the filibuster “another relic of the Jim Crow era” that should be eliminated if it would allow Democrats to pass voting reform.
As the filibuster pressure mounts from Democrats, Manchin is also dealing with disappointment from some Republicans. Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute lambasted Manchin for casting the deciding vote to pass a COVID-19 relief bill via the budget reconciliation process that skirts the filibuster.
Thiessen noted the legislation approved by Manchin rejected compromises offered by a handful of Republican senators that Manchin said were important to consider. “The lesson for conservatives is clear,” Thiessen wrote. “Manchin is not going to save us.”
Pro-life advocates had another concern about the bill: It didn’t include the Hyde Amendment—a provision barring federal funding for most abortions. In the past, Manchin’s staff has said the senator’s willingness to vote for bills that would allow funding of Planned Parenthood was contingent on the Hyde Amendment being included in bills. (Manchin has said his pro-life views flow from his Catholic faith.)
Democrats didn’t include the Hyde Amendment in the COVID-19 bill. Manchin voted with Republicans to include Hyde in the legislation, but when the effort failed, the senator voted for it without the Hyde amendment.
(Manchin’s office didn’t return a request for comment on his decision to approve the bill without Hyde, but he told National Review he hopes the amendment can be added back in through the appropriations process.) His vote upset pro-lifers like Hawkins from Students for Life.
She was also unhappy with Manchin’s vote to confirm Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra—the former attorney general of California who filed the felony charges against Daleiden for the undercover Planned Parenthood videos. Manchin said he voted for Becerra because he believes he will uphold the Hyde Amendment. But Becerra is only bound to uphold Hyde if lawmakers continue to include it in legislation: Biden and other Democrats have already called for eliminating it long-term.
If Manchin is sometimes on a political island, he does have at least some company in another Democratic senator who manages to irritate both sides of the aisle: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a 44-year-old with a penchant for brightly colored wigs and a hot pink shirt that reads, “Dangerous Creature.”
That’s a moniker both parties might agree on.
SINEMA CLIMBED THE POLITICAL LADDER after a childhood in poverty and a strong connection to the Mormon religion.
She graduated from the Mormon Brigham Young University in two years but no longer considers herself Mormon: Sinema became the first member of Congress to declare no religious affiliation in a survey of incoming lawmakers in 2013. She’s part of a growing segment of Americans known as “nones.” She also made history as the first openly bisexual senator.
It all makes Sinema seem like an unlikely candidate for the moniker of “the Joe Manchin of the West,” but it’s a label she doesn’t necessarily resist. After early years of liberal political activism, including support for Ralph Nader’s Green Party, Sinema drifted to the center and found herself making friends—and sometimes common cause—with Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Sinema has said she considers Cruz an ally on certain legislation, and Lankford has said he doesn’t think Democrats will be able to move Sinema away from her opposition to ending the filibuster.
She’s rarely afraid to draw ire from Democratic colleagues: When she recently showed up on the Senate floor to vote against including a minimum wage increase in the COVID-19 relief bill, Sinema literally gave a thumbs-down to the proposal—a gesture that rankled Democratic colleagues.
Last summer, Sinema appeared at a Brigham Young religious freedom forum with Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah and a Mormon. Though Sinema doesn’t claim a religious affiliation anymore, she spoke of the importance of religious concerns being valid in the public square. She recently joined a statement with a handful of religious leaders calling for both LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.
It’s unclear how Sinema would accomplish that, particularly given that she co-sponsored the Equality Act—legislation that would enshrine gender identity into federal law. It also explicitly rejects the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense against claims of discrimination for religious Americans not wanting to participate in activities that violate their consciences.
Mary Hasson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says the Equality Act imposes a belief system about sexuality that doesn’t allow for exceptions: “So beliefs that until literally a few years ago the vast majority of Americans subscribed to would all of a sudden be branded as bigoted and discriminatory. … That’s a radical move.”
Among many other provisions, the Equality Act also defines “public accommodations” for establishments to include any public gathering, meaning churches could find themselves in the crosshairs of lawsuits if they’re accused of certain forms of discrimination.
The legislation also would add pregnancy and related conditions to the definition of “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “It suggests that this is going to be an open door for people to claim that this protects someone’s right to have an abortion, and they can sue someone for failing to provide it or cover it in their insurance plan,” Hasson said. (Manchin has said he couldn’t support the Equality Act as it’s written.)
Sinema’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on how she would square the Equality Act with her declared concerns for religious liberty. Some have suggested legislation known as Fairness for All, but the bill seems unlikely to get far: Conservatives like Hasson say it doesn’t do enough to protect religious believers in secular settings, and liberal activists have showed little interest in its compromises.
For now, the only way the Equality Act likely could pass is if the filibuster ends. That leaves Sinema and Manchin as the very different buttresses on legislation most Republicans oppose—at least for now.
A short-sighted push to eliminate the filibuster could backfire quickly on Democrats, who could lose control of the Senate after midterm elections in 2022. But that hasn’t stopped at least one group from threatening to push for primary challenges against Sinema and Manchin—who aren’t up for reelection until 2024.
In an email in February, a PAC called No Excuses put out a call to supporters with a plea that may seem like almost heaven to them but remains a tall order, especially in West Virginia.
Invoking progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, the group urged, “Help us find the next AOC to replace Manchin and Sinema.”
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