WASHINGTON — The White House has reached an impasse with Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from conservative West Virginia who this week reiterated his opposition to key elements of the president’s legislative agenda.
It’s left President Joe Biden with a decision to make.
In coming months, the leader of the Democratic Party must decide whether he can cajole Manchin with a mixture of schmoozing and arm-twisting that eventually convinces the lawmaker to relent — a process that threatens to further delay Biden’s agenda if it fails — or instead capitulate and move on to other issues, a decision that would anger the president’s liberal base and reduce the size and scope of his potential accomplishments.
Either approach carries risk, political veterans say, in dealing with a lawmaker whose opposition to any legislation can single-handedly stop it from becoming law in an evenly divided Senate.
“We’re all trapped in this choose-your-own-adventure book where Joe Manchin is the narrator, and he’s the only one who knows how this ends,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist. “In the meantime, you either roll Manchin or you co-opt him by doing what he wants.”
So far, the White House is embracing a mixture of both approaches with a lawmaker whose recent policy pronouncements have taken Washington by storm.
In the past week alone, Manchin has declared his opposition to a Democratic-backed voting rights bill and once again insisted on the need for bipartisan compromise on a multibillion-dollar infrastructure package, arguing in both cases that the country would be better off if the parties were able to negotiate together in good faith.
He also reiterated that he will not vote to end the legislative filibuster, a step many Democrats on Capitol Hill consider necessary to pass the party’s full agenda in the face of united opposition from Republicans. Sixty senators are required to end the filibuster in the Senate, meaning Democrats would need the support of at least 10 Republican senators in a chamber split evenly between the two parties.
“American democracy is something special, it is bigger than one party, or the tweet-filled partisan attack politics of the moment,” Manchin wrote in a Charleston Gazette-Mail opinion piece published Sunday. “It is my sincere hope that all of us, especially those who are privileged to serve, remember our responsibility to do more to unite this country before it is too late.”
Manchin’s announcements created what some political observers say is the first real legislative stalemate for the president, who within months of taking office passed a nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief bill through Congress on a party-line vote and introduced two more expansive proposals to invest trillions of dollars in infrastructure and enhanced family care.
“This is the system of government we have, and by nature of the breakdown of the Senate, those realities present constraints to the White House,” said Eric Schultz, a deputy White House press secretary for former President Barack Obama. “That said, there is no one who I think is better positioned to work this than Joe Biden, someone who understands the Senate, someone who understands the prerogatives of senators.”
The personal relationship between Manchin and Biden remains strong. The president, senator, and their senior staff remain in regular contact, and White House officials point out that on many issues — including the COVID-19 relief bill — the two men have been in agreement.
Manchin has also praised the White House repeatedly, saying in an interview last week that he had “never had an administration pay this much attention” to West Virginia.
Still, Biden appeared to express frustration at Manchin and another more centrist Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, during a speech earlier this month, explaining that he couldn’t get more done in Congress because of “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
Since Manchin reiterated his opposition to the voting rights bill and ending the filibuster, other Democrats have been far more harsh, especially from the party’s liberal wing. One Democratic lawmaker likened the West Virginia lawmaker to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a comparison White House officials declined to embrace.
“We’re going to leave the name-calling to others,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “The president considers Senator Manchin a friend.”
The White House said that Biden appreciates Manchin’s support for past legislative initiatives.
“While they have different views on voting rights — which is a core priority for the President that he is pursuing forcefully — he has always believed it’s important to work well with colleagues regardless of disagreements,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates in a statement Thursday.
Psaki said the White House plans to “continue to seek ways we can work with Senator Manchin” even after they disagree on some issues.
Veteran lawmakers say criticizing Manchin in public is unlikely to convince him to change his position. But some of them say that criticism might be exactly what the senator wants, to prove his independence from the party’s liberal faction in an overwhelmingly Republican state where former President Donald Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points.
Even trying to strong-arm lawmakers in private can have little effect, they add.
“There’s always going to be some staffers along the way who’ll take the we’ll-show-him attitude. We’ll bring him around. We’ll sanction him,” said Ben Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. “And in my opinion, that just doesn’t work”
He said that any threats could easily backfire on the party because Manchin knows how important it is for Democrats to keep that seat in West Virginia.
“Who’s he supposed to be afraid of?” Nelson said. “What are the sanctions? You keep holding out and we’ll take away your committees? Why would they want to do that? Do they want to strengthen the seat in West Virginia or drive it to the opposition party?”
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