- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2021

President Biden intends to appoint the wife of the Senate’s top swing vote, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, to a plum federal position that pays upwards of $160,000 annually.

The White House announced on Friday it would nominate Gayle Connelly Manchin, a former president of the West Virginia state board of education, to serve as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The organization is responsible for spurring economic development and investment in the 13 states that make up the region of Appalachia — which spans from northern Mississippi to Pennsylvania.

If confirmed by the Senate, Mrs. Manchin is slated to replace Tim Thomas, a former staffer for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The role comes with a salary of approximately $163,000 annually, according to a federal pay database.

Mrs. Manchin’s nomination comes as her husband has become a vital political player in Washington, D.C.

Despite Democrats controlling both Congress and the White House, the party’s hold on the Senate is tenuous at best. The upper chamber is split 50-50 between both parties, with Democrats only holding the majority thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Given the narrow margin, Mr. Manchin, a self-described “moderate to conservative Democrat,” holds immense sway over whether the Biden administration’s agenda can become law. The senator’s influence was felt earlier this month when he delayed passage of the coronavirus relief package due to issues surrounding unemployment benefits.

Mr. Manchin has also been a key figure in a renewed push to abolish the Senate filibuster. The rule, which requires a three-fifths Senate vote — usually 60 votes — to end debate on a piece of legislation, had become a point of internal division for Democrats.

Progressives argue the filibuster should not stand in the way of Mr. Biden’s agenda on gun control, climate change or voting rights. The latter has been specifically notable in recent days as Democrats prepare to put their signature electoral overhaul, the “For the People Act,” up for a vote next month.

Moderate Democrats, like Mr. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have balked at prior calls to jettison the filibuster. 

In January, both lawmakers asserted their opposition to abolishing the rule when Democrats were negotiating with Republicans on how to organize the Senate. At the time, Mr. Manchin even asserted he did “not support doing away with the filibuster under any condition” because it was “not who I am.” 

In recent weeks, however, Mr. Manchin has softened from that rigid stance. Earlier this month, the West Virginia Democrat floated the idea of changing the filibuster to mandate lawmakers have to continuously speak on the Senate floor when attempting to prevent a vote. Under current rules, senators only have to signal their intent to hold up a bill to prevent it from moving forward without 60-votes. 

“The filibuster should be painful, it really should be painful and we’ve made it more comfortable over the years,” Mr. Manchin said. “Maybe it has to be more painful.”

While Mr. Manchin has remained stern that he will never support the full abolition of the filibuster, the White House appears hopeful that he will come around. 

“Well look, we’ll see, [the] question is whether or not you have to have 50 votes, 51 votes… right now that doesn’t exist,” Presiden Biden said on Friday when asked about the filibuster. “So you know, look, the only thing I’ve been relatively good at in my long career in the Senate is figuring out when to move and when not to move. You got to have the votes.”

It is unclear if Mrs. Manchin’s new high-paying federal post will have any impact on swaying the senator. 

Some government watchdog groups are already questioning the appointment’s timing. 

“Politicians use various inducements to get other politicians to change their minds on issues,” Peter Schweizer, a best-selling author and the president of the Government Accountability Institute, told the Washington Times. “Unfortunately, it often works all too well.”

Furthermore, it remains uncertain whether Mrs. Manchin will accept the co-chair’s salary. A number of prior federal appointees with close familial ties to leading elected officials have chosen to forgo their salaries to avoid any hint of a conflict of interest.

Most notably, Jared and Ivanka Trump decided to not accept compensation for their roles in the White House during former President Donald Trump’s term in office.

Mr. Manchin’s Senate office did not respond to requests for this story.

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

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