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Progressives are eager to make moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., pay a political price for sidelining President Biden’s climate change and tax agenda.
Democratic operatives and activists say Manchin’s refusal to obey the party line warrants a primary challenge when the senator runs for re-election in 2024.
“This man has been a thorn in the side of not only the White House, but the American people as well,” said Nina Turner, who served as national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
“West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the nation, yet he stands in the way of legislation that would help working people. He should be primaried for that alone.”
President Biden, right, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are at odds over a climate change provision in Democrats’ sweeping spending bill.
Democrats have been wary of taking Manchin on publicly in the past for fear of upending the delicate balance of the 50-50 Senate. Within the chamber, Democrats only hold power because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
That reality has given Manchin extraordinary influence over the budget reconciliation process. A party-line mechanism for passing some tax and spending measures, reconciliation is key for any legislation that cannot overcome the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Democrats initially hoped to use reconciliation to pass an ambitious $1.75 trillion package of tax hikes, climate change subsidies and new social welfare spending, dubbed Build Back Better. Manchin threw a wrench into that plan last year by refusing to support the bill over concerns it would exacerbate inflation.
Earlier this month, Manchin undercut a small version of the reconciliation deal by urging Democrats to hold off on including tax hikes or climate change until the next round of inflation numbers.
“I said, ‘Can we just wait until the inflation figures come out [for] July, until we know if the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates?’” Manchin told West Virginia MetroNews. “Then make the decision on what we can do and how much we can do.”
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gestures while speaking during a news conference at his New Hampshire headquarters Feb. 6, 2020, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Democrats say the move likely ensures the provisions will be left out, especially since few economists expect inflation to decrease significantly within the next month.
“That potential to enact that legislation is dead,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “But this also unchains the president from waiting for Congress to act.”
Manchin’s request for a delay was the last straw in a long list of grievances, according to progressives.
The West Virginia Democrat has rankled his party by opposing legislation to protect abortion rights. Manchin also refused to blow up the filibuster earlier this year to pass the White House’s rewrite of the nation’s voting laws.
More than anything else, however, the senator has frustrated efforts to pass Biden’s agenda via reconciliation. That has many Democrats ready to purge Manchin from their ranks.
“While we need to support all types of diversity in our party, when someone is acting as a de facto agent of the Republican caucus and single-handily stopping good policy that would help all Americans, we have a moral obligation to do something,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic political strategist who has advised moderates. “Joe Manchin is doing what Mitch McConnell cannot do for himself.”
Climate activists protest Joe Manchin at a West Virginia power plant. (Kidus Girma/West Virginia Rising)
Many on the left note that Manchin appears to be particularly vulnerable ahead of 2024. Although polls show him with a strong approval rating in West Virginia, most of it comes from Republicans.
A recent Morning Consult survey found Mr. Manchin with a 57% job approval rating among West Virginia’s electorate. When broken down along party lines, the survey found that 69% of Republicans approve of Mr. Manchin’s performance, compared to 44% of Democrats.
“Democrats are not pleased with him,” said Turner. “He can be challenged and beaten in a primary. If he wants to try and rely on Republicans to re-elect him, then good luck.”
Even if a primary challenge fails, progressives say it will still force Manchin to take his party’s base more seriously.
Republicans welcome such efforts. They say that, given West Virginia’s strong embrace of Republicans, Manchin is likely the only Democrat who could win a U.S. Senate there in the near future.
“If they want to nominate someone far-left and ensure that seat goes red in two years, we’re all for that,” said Greg Thomas, a GOP strategist based in the state.
Progressives are not phased by the notion, saying that Manchin already votes like a Republican anyway.
“If he’s a Democrat, then we’re in trouble,” said Turner. “We might as well take the risk.”