West Virginia senator drops bomb in TV interview, enraging Democratic left and earning White House rebuke
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) – For more than five months, the political class, and the chattering class, in Washington have been obsessed with one question: Will West Virginia Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin support President Joe Biden’s ambitious $2 trillion Build Back Better plan, or won’t he?
In one of the year’s most dramatic political interviews, Manchin gave his final answer Sunday morning.
Joe’s a no. And with every Republican in the Senate also opposed, his no – if he doesn’t change his mind – deals a death blow to the bill in the evenly divided chamber.
“If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it,” Manchin said on Fox News Sunday. “And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t.”
Moderator Brett Baier, who appeared to be taken aback by Manchin’s bombshell, asked, “This is a no?”
“This is no,” Manchin quietly repeated.
His announcement came at the end of a tense week of negotiations over Build Back Better before senators left town for their Christmas break. Manchin had been the subject of intense media attention and pressure from colleagues and the White House, prompting the usually amiable lawmaker to lose his temper at one point and shout an explicative at a reporter.
Politico reported that just before he was about to go on the air Sunday, Manchin dispatched an aide to the White House to let administration officials know what was about to happen – and then rebuffed a phone call to try to get him to change his mind.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki then released a statement with extraordinarily strong language aimed at a senator from the president’s own party.
“Senator Manchin’s comments this morning on Fox are at odds with his discussions this week with the President, with White House staff, and with his own public utterances,” Psaki said. “They represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
Manchin explained that his decision was driven by concerns about inflation, the federal debt, and the looming specter that the COVID-19 omicron variant will extend the duration and severity of the pandemic.
He also complained that Democrats pushing the bill were trying to disguise the full, eventual cost of the total package by artificially phasing out provisions after short periods of time, rather than funding a smaller, more affordable package of priorities for a 10-year period.
“That’s not being genuine with my constituents in West Virginia,” he said, pointing to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that fully funding all of the priorities in the bill for 10 years would cost $4.5 trillion.
But those explanations fell flat with many of his Democratic colleagues, who erupted at the news of his decision.
“I think he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia, to tell them why he doesn’t have the guts to take on the drug companies to lower the costs of prescription drugs, why he is not prepared to expand home health care” said Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union.
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said Manchin “has betrayed his commitment not only to the President and Democrats in Congress but most importantly, to the American people.”
“He routinely touts that he is a man of his word, but he can no longer say that. West Virginians, and the country, see clearly who he is,” Jayapal said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Texas U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett likened Manchin to the Grinch who “just stole Christmas for many and don’t expect any last minute Dr. Seuss happy ending.”
“After 6 months of talking and talking, Joe Manchin finally made it unequivocal … he’s with the Republicans,” Doggett said in a Tweet. “What an outrage!”
Lawmakers on the Democratic left who style themselves as “Progressives” were particularly irked because they reluctantly agreed to go along with a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Manchin supported in exchange for a promise from Biden to push Build Back Better through the Senate.
However, New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — who refused to go along with that bargain — tweeted out an I-told-you-so after Manchin’s appearance on Fox.
“People can be mad at Manchin all they want, but we knew he would do this months ago,” she tweeted. “Where we need answers from are the leaders who promised a path on [Build Back Better] if [infrastructure] passed: Biden & Dem leaders … So they need to fix it.”
Sanders said he wants the Senate to vote on Build Back Better, even if it fails, saying if Manchin “doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”
However, Manchin told Baier that he has no problem with a Senate vote on the bill – which he will oppose.
“I’ve tried everything humanly possible,” he said. “I can’t get there.”
Manchin’s no is unlikely to harm him politically in West Virginia. Even though the state has many economically disadvantaged residents who would benefit from Biden’s social spending, it is also deeply conservative, handing Biden a 39-point loss in 2020.
Manchin, who is 74, is also not up for re-election until 2024 and has been non-committal on whether he’ll run again.
However, Manchin’s increasingly bitter dispute with members of his own party is likely to heighten speculation that he might change parties (which he has dismissed) or leave the Democrats to become independent, which he had previously offered to do if he became a “problem” for his caucus.
A party switch would flip control of the Senate to Republicans, which could also happen if he left to become an independent but caucused with the GOP.