Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is becoming a bigger problem for President Biden and Democrats in the Senate as he faces an uphill reelection battle in West Virginia, a state where former President Trump won one of his biggest victories in 2020.
Manchin has criticized Biden and Democrats publicly, opposed various nominees and, this week, said he would oppose every one of the president’s nominations to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Before an election in which Biden is casting himself as a centrist and stable choice for the country, Manchin accused his EPA nominees of pursuing an “extreme ideology” and panned the administration’s plan to limit greenhouse pollution from existing power plants.
The shots from inside the party are exactly what Biden doesn’t want as he tries to unify Democrats ahead of the 2024 race — all at a time when polls show his support from the public is decidedly underwhelming.
“He is giving the administration fits, and I think … he probably feels like they have it coming,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW). “They threw him under the bus with the [Inflation Reduction Act] and permitting stuff, and it looks to me he’s demonstrating a pretty serious effort to point that out.”
“He can hold whatever he wants, as we all can, and make it very difficult for them to advance nominees,” Cramer added. “And I say good for him. He deserves some concessions.”
When pressed on whether Biden has reached out to Manchin since he said he would oppose the EPA nominees, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “Sen. Manchin is a friend.”
“We are going to continue to have conversations with him. We’re going to continue to have a good relationship,” she added.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the EPW Committee, told The Hill he was hoping to talk with Manchin about his opposition to “convince him that he may want to rethink that position” and to “find favor” with some of the nominees, present and future.
“I understand that sometimes we get upset, whether it’s this administration or another administration,” Carper said.
With Biden’s legislative priorities unable to get past the GOP-controlled House, he is looking toward successful confirmations as something to tout on the campaign trail. But Manchin’s threat to hold up nominees, when Democrats have such a narrow majority in the Senate, casts a shadow over Biden’s agenda.
As Cramer noted, Manchin could still go further. The West Virginia senator chairs the Senate Energy Committee and could hold up nominees who come before that panel, as well.
Allies of Manchin argue the latest maneuvers fit squarely with his oft-stated line that he is standing up for his state.
“Manchin has been fighting the EPA since the day he got in the Senate. Remember, this is the guy who shot the cap and trade bill because he’s standing up for West Virginia,” said Jon Kott, a lobbyist and a former top aide to Manchin. “This is nothing new.”
The White House noted this week, after Machin’s announcement about the EPA nominees, the Biden administration has been able to move forward on historic pieces of legislation with Manchin, citing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the infrastructure law.
But Manchin has long been a thorn in Biden’s side.
He was indeed a major player in getting the IRA passed last year, but the final version he negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was smaller than the Democrats’ original vision.
And just last month, the senator threatened to support repealing it over some energy policies. Manchin has also joined Republicans numerous times this year in voting to overturn environmental regulations put in place by the Biden administration — efforts the president will veto.
Manchin is among the top targets of Republicans to defeat this cycle, and he likely realizes he has work to do back home after the IRA passed. According to a Morning Consult survey taken last month, Manchin has the lowest approval rating of any Senate Democrat.
Due to his state of political peril and a potential general election battle with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), some Democrats believe they should let Manchin do whatever he can to hold his seat.
“Anyone who truly understands politics knows how challenging it is to be a Democrat in West Virginia at this time. In order to win his reelection, Sen. Manchin has calculated that he needs to be in a full-blown war against his own party to show his independence, and if Democrats want to keep that seat, they need to be okay with that,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
At present, only two EPA nominations would be affected by Manchin’s stance: Joe Goffman to head the air office and David Uhlmann to run the enforcement office. Both were voted out of the EPW Committee last month.
Some Republicans found the timing of the announcement curious. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced her return to Washington on the same day, meaning Democrats would once again have their one-seat buffer if Manchin or anyone else in their caucus opposes a nominee.
“Interesting that Manchin waited until Feinstein returned to get tough on EPA [nominations]. Allows him to vote with [Republicans] but the [nominations] will likely still be confirmed,” said Doug Andres, a top press aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
And some Democrats are brushing off the problems Manchin is giving Biden.
“Democratic politics are messy. In a strange way, I think this is pretty normal and there is some very hard work ahead for Manchin and Biden to get reelected,” said Ivan Zapien, a Democratic lobbyist and former Democratic National Committee official. “Both are extraordinary politicians, and even though they may clash often, they know it’s not personal and the goal is to win reelection, not to look organized and in harmony.”
John LaBombard, a former communications director to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), said Manchin is a rare Democrat who can win statewide in West Virginia because he acts first for his constituents, not the party.
“The president’s path to reelection is a different path than some of our incumbent senators, and we’ll all have to agree to be a bigger tent than we have been in recent years if we want to keep Donald Trump out of the White House and Mitch McConnell from becoming majority leader,” said LaBombard, a senior vice president at Rokk Solutions.
However, Manchin is receiving backup from across the aisle who are cheering on his every move, especially on the climate front.
“Sen. Manchin and I are like-minded on the clean power plan, so I think he can’t push it far enough,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the EPW panel’s ranking member. “So more power to him.”