- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Sen. Joe Manchin III is awash in renewed speculation about his future as a Democrat after killing President Biden’s economic agenda in Congress and becoming persona non grata in his party.

Talk of what lies ahead for the West Virginia moderate is increasingly a hot topic among both Republicans and Democrats. The immediate consideration for those on the right is whether Mr. Manchin can be enticed to defect and hand control of the 50-50 Senate to Republicans.

Such a feat would upend Democrats’ control of Congress and make the Biden agenda all the more difficult to pass.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and former majority whip, said Tuesday that he had privately broached the topic of a party switch directly with Mr. Manchin via phone.

“I don’t know what he will decide to do. But I do know West Virginia has gotten increasingly red,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I think his vote on Build Back Better is reflective of what he’s hearing from his constituents in West Virginia. So, yeah, we’d love to have him. That would change the majority.”

Mr. Cornyn said he did not elicit a response one way or the other, but Republican lawmakers continue publicly and privately praising Mr. Manchin. The strategy is meant to create a clear juxtaposition between Republicans and Democrats, who have attacked Mr. Manchin since he announced opposition to the White House’s $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate bill.

SEE ALSO: United Mine Workers breaks with Manchin over opposition to $1.75 trillion social welfare bill

“It’s a tough hill for him to climb. He’s been a Democrat his whole life, and he’s really the godfather of Democrats in West Virginia,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “That being said, if they’re nasty enough, the best thing that could happen is they could drive him over to the Republican Party, and we would welcome him.”

Democrats seem all too willing to let Mr. Manchin go. Lawmakers on the far left and the White House have attacked the senator for his refusal to back the massive spending package. The bill includes a wish list of liberal programs such as government-subsidized universal preschool and generous tax credits for buying electric vehicles and building wind and solar energy plants.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Manchin broke his word to the president by opposing the legislation.

“Sen. Manchin came to the White House and submitted — to the president, in person, directly — a written outline for a Build Back Better bill that was the same size and scope as the president’s framework and covered many of the same priorities,” said Ms. Psaki. “Sen. Manchin pledged repeatedly to negotiate on finalizing that framework in good faith.”

Mr. Manchin said the White House staff miscalculated their negotiating position and used “absolutely inexcusable” intimidation tactics to try to force him to support the bill.

“You all are approaching legislation as if you have 55 or 60 senators that are Democrats, like you could do whatever you want,” Mr. Manchin said in a radio interview with West Virginia Metro News. “They figured surely to God we can move one person. Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.”

Although the intimidation failed, Democrats continued to repudiate Mr. Manchin for breaking with their agenda.

“It’s tremendously frustrating for me, as a Black man in America, because once again, it’s an example of Joe Manchin as a White man showing that he doesn’t care about Black people, he doesn’t care about Latinos … he doesn’t care about the poor,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, New York Democrat. “He has the privilege to kick the can down the road and not vote for this bill while the people in my district are suffering.”

Criticism of Mr. Manchin’s opposition to the spending bill has also come from close allies. The United Mine Workers of America, which has significant influence in West Virginia, publicly urged the senator to reverse his position. The union said the bill’s social welfare programs would benefit its membership.

“We urge Sen. Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families and their communities,” said UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

Though some Democrats are attempting to cool tempers, most say the attacks will have no impact on Mr. Manchin’s affiliation with the party. The calculation stems from a nuanced reading of Mr. Manchin’s power within the Senate and his standing back home.

Strategists think Mr. Mancin is the only Democrat who could win reelection in deep-red West Virginia, which voted for President Trump last year by nearly 39 percentage points. But they also say Mr. Manchin would face long odds of securing reelection as a Republican.

The state has a wide Republican bench, including a term-limited billionaire governor, that could easily deny Mr. Manchin the party’s nomination for Senate. As a Republican, Mr. Manchin also could not rely on Mr. Trump’s endorsement to survive a Republican primary, given that he voted to convict him twice in impeachment proceedings.

Mr. Manchin is up for reelection in 2024.

“He has it rough now, but that’s nothing compared to the political gymnastics that would be needed to secure reelection in West Virginia as a freshly minted Republican with a record going against Trump,” said a West Virginia Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss Mr. Manchin. “His strength is in a general election where a minority of Republicans feel comfortable crossing over to support him. That group is just big enough to win a general election as a Democrat, but it’s too small to win a GOP primary.”

Under Republican control, Mr. Manchin would not have the luxury of voting against legislation deemed too far left for West Virginia voters.

Rather, with the Senate agenda set by Mr. McConnell, he would be forced to hold sway over Republican initiatives.

“People at home see him as someone fighting for West Virginia values and holding back the liberal tide,” said the Democratic strategist.

“If he became a Republican, the conversation would shift to him holding back the GOP agenda, which recent elections show West Virginians increasingly supporting.”

Mr. Manchin appears to understand that reality. Although he has expressed frustration with fellow Democrats, Mr. Manchin has never openly entertained the idea of an outright party switch.

Instead, he and allies have floated the idea of becoming independent and caucusing with either Democrats or Republicans, depending on which party makes the better offer.

As an independent, Mr. Manchin would have broader room to operate without having to rely on winning a Republican primary to stay in office.

Democrats would have to offer significantly more perks and power to keep him in their corner, given West Virginia’s conservative bent.

“I would like to hope that there are still Democrats that feel like I do. I say I’m fiscally responsible and socially compassionate,” said Mr. Manchin. “Now, if there are no Democrats like that, they’ll have to push me [to] wherever they want to.”

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

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