IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Joe Manchin negotiates like a Republican

The West Virginian has moved the goalposts so many times it's not even clear what game is being played anymore.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is once again standing between his fellow Democrats and the means to address climate change. Last week, he told Senate leadership that he wouldn’t back either the climate provisions or the tax hikes on the wealthy that his party has been trying to pass for more than a year.

Manchin has irked me a lot over the last two years, for a number of reasons. Some of that has been based on his policy preferences, such as his fetish for means-testing. Some of it has been his blind worship of bipartisanship and the filibuster. But his latest obstruction really hammered home why so many Democrats are losing patience with him: Joe Manchin negotiates like he’s a Republican.

Manchin is constantly redefining what he will and will not accept in a deal, leaving his colleagues unclear what will get him to “yes.”

I don’t necessarily mean that Manchin wants the exact same things as the GOP. Despite making millions from coal, he at least pays lip-service to the need for action to mitigate the effects of climate change. “As far as I’m concerned, I want climate, I want an energy policy,” he told a West Virginia radio station on Friday. You won’t hear similar sentiments from the Republican caucus.

And I don’t exactly mean that he treats the Democratic caucus like the opposition. He certainly prefers to keep them at arms-length at times, and although I think that he’s misreading history as he prioritizes his home state over the well-being of the country as a whole, his standoffish relationship with other Democrats makes at least some sense given his state’s deeply conservative voting base.

No, I mean that Manchin is constantly redefining what he will and will not accept in a deal, leaving his colleagues unclear what will get him to “yes.” This time around, he wants to limit the scope of the Democrats’ next major spending bill to focus entirely on prescription drug costs and health care subsidies. He says the rest can wait at least until the July inflation report comes out — an entirely arbitrary factor to base his decision on and one that ensures that a bill won’t pass the Senate before the August recess.

The situation is all the more galling when you consider how many times he’s pulled a similar stunt, negotiating with himself and constantly moving the goal posts. Even if the July inflation numbers are better than expected, there’s no guarantee that Manchin will even support a final bill if it includes the climate provisions, the same ones he said he’d accept in January.

This feels like the kind of game that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his cohort love to pull. Like Manchin, Republicans will set a new, lower ceiling for what they can accept, Democrats will scramble to meet that demand — and they'll soon enough pivot to an even narrower framework for what they'll approve. It’s truly wild to remember that the bill we’re now talking about is the remnant of what Manchin once predicted was going to be a nearly $4 trillion investment in America’s future.

The trouble is that this constant dithering from Manchin gets him the results he wants. President Joe Biden last week issued a statement all but telling Senate leadership to give Manchin whatever he is prepared to accept, and the White House will do as much as it can through executive action. Which is, I guess, an acceptable Plan G, or whatever we’re on by now, but there’s no substitute for Congress actually stepping up and passing laws.

The trouble is that this constant dithering from Manchin gets him the results he wants.

Manchin only has this power because in a 50-50 Senate, the Democrats can’t afford to lose him on a single vote. But his colleagues are tired of his shtick. “We’re all going to die,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said to reporters when asked about Manchin blocking climate change legislation yet again. Without naming names, Vice President Kamala Harris in a speech on Monday said that with just two more Democratic senators the filibuster (read: Joe Manchin and his partner in obstruction Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.) would no longer be an obstacle to Democratic goals.

For now, though, the unfortunate reality is that Manchin’s vote is still required to pass anything budget related in the Senate as long as the GOP stands united in opposition. He certainly hasn’t made many friends during this process, though, so he should enjoy this period of indispensability while he can. Should the Republicans reclaim control of the Senate, his hardball tactics will seem like child’s play compared to theirs. And if Democrats gain enough seats to make his vote nice — but not required — he may find himself isolated from both parties and regretting how he’s played the last two years.