It’s taken years for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to become the GOP’s favorite Democrat in the Senate, with Republicans recently praising him for no less than “saving the country” and “the American way of life” over his refusal to go along with much of his party’s agenda.
And it took just one afternoon for Republicans to turn on West Virginia’s wildcard senator and cast him as just another acolyte of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Last week, Manchin did the one thing Republicans—and some Democrats—all thought he wouldn’t do: He struck a deal.
Only minutes after the Senate passed a high-tech manufacturing bill—one that Republicans had threatened to hold up if Manchin miraculously did reach an agreement with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on a climate, health-care and tax measure—Manchin and Schumer announced they had done the unthinkable.
And suddenly, the senator who the GOP once praised for preventing the country from going down a road to ruin had, in their view, suddenly hopped into the driver’s seat—and had done so sneakily.
On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—who last year told reporters, “God bless” Manchin—told The Daily Beast he appreciated that Manchin “held the line” on maintaining the filibuster, the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass laws. But Graham emphasized that Manchin is pushing an “ill-conceived idea” that makes “no sense.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—who last year reportedly urged GOP senators to strategically praise Manchin and was open to Manchin switching parties—said at his press conference on Tuesday that his West Virginia colleague made a “terrible deal.”
“How he can defend this is astonishing,” McConnell said. “This is a deal only Bernie Sanders would love.”
For Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Manchin’s move seemed to provoke at least four of the five stages of grief. When Manchin faced intense Democratic criticism last year, Cornyn routinely defended his colleague to his 350,000 Twitter followers. In December, Cornyn admitted to personally texting Manchin to ask if he’d join the GOP conference, calling the prospect “the greatest Christmas gift” he could imagine.
But after Manchin rolled out his deal, Cornyn took to the Senate floor to decry an “Olympic-sized flip flop” by the Democratic senator.
Since the weekend, Cornyn tweeted well over a dozen times about Manchin’s decision, questioning his analysis of economic data, accusing him of “prevarication,” and arguing he had “lashed” himself to President Joe Biden in a state where he is deeply unpopular.
In one tweet, Cornyn twisted the knife by invoking what Republicans had viewed as Manchin’s most courageous moment.
“Manchin is trying to pretend he killed BBB,” he said, referring to Biden’s sprawling Build Back Better agenda, “but really he agreed to the Green New Deal.”
In scope and size, the package Manchin ultimately brokered falls far short of the Green New Deal, or Build Back Better, which invested hundreds of billions of dollars more in climate and energy measures. The new legislation, which was quickly given a midterm-friendly name—the Inflation Reduction Act—is nevertheless a major package with tax hikes on the rich, $300 billion in climate investments, and reforms to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Republicans believe even this more modest package would be ruinous to the economy, given two straight quarters of negative economic growth, persistent inflation, and widely held fears the U.S. economy is sinking into a recession. Many are holding out hope that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) will play a Manchin-esque role here; the Arizona centrist has yet to give her sign-off to the Manchin-Schumer deal, and her opposition would sink the plan because Democrats intend to pass the bill entirely with Democratic votes using a special budgetary process.
But when it comes to Manchin, “the gloves are off,” said a senior GOP aide.
“Manchin held the line on the filibuster and BBB,” the senior Republican aide continued. “But in the end, he almost always ends up where Schumer wants him to. Republicans hoped that wouldn’t be the case on this.”
The implications for Manchin will reverberate beyond Capitol Hill. In deep-red West Virginia, the conservative Democrat has always pulled off a delicate political balancing act. But his deal could fray the tightrope even further. A potentially packed field of GOP challengers could take on the Democrat when he faces re-election in 2024, and several potential candidate have already begun hammering him for striking a deal.
Some Senate Democrats had a simple answer for the GOP’s Manchin woes. “They’re grouchy that we found a compromise,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “And they’re gonna say what they think is helpful to their cause, which is to kill this legislation.”
When asked about the GOP criticism during a press availability on Tuesday, Manchin himself was magnanimous. “They’re still my friends,” he said of his Republican colleagues. “I love ’em all.”
The tenor of Republicans’ swipes at Manchin seemed largely rooted in their belief that Manchin was opposed on principle to a deal of this kind. Although the senator remained at the negotiating table for over a year, his insistence that inflation concerns guided his position on any major legislation convinced Republicans that Manchin likely wouldn’t agree to anything major.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told The Daily Beast that he was surprised Manchin got to yes. “Both Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema have been publicly willing to stand out there and make a difference in some areas, like the rules,” Blunt said. “But, you know, legislating is a fluid process.”
Several GOP lawmakers implied—or explicitly said—that Democratic leaders simply duped him. The influential former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers reportedly called Manchin repeatedly to convince him that the proposal would not add to inflation, a detail that made some Republicans question how he arrived at his conclusions about the legislation’s impact.
Other Republicans were harsh in their assessment of Manchin’s role. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who worked with Manchin a decade ago on a major gun reform measure, said on Sunday that he got “taken to the cleaners.”
But Manchin has staunchly defended his position that the legislation would, in fact, start to mitigate the economic trend that has sapped Americans’ purchasing power. He went on all five of the major Sunday political talk shows over the weekend to downplay the bill’s tax increases on the rich and to emphasize its provisions to increase energy production.
Jonathan Kott, a former longtime aide to Manchin, expressed surprise that “Republicans are upset with him for agreeing to a bill he said for months he was working on,” particularly one that includes Republican priorities like reducing the federal government’s debt.
The GOP backlash, Kott said, “won't stop [Manchin] from working with his good friends on the order side of the aisle in the future.”
Indeed, even amid the Republican frustration with Manchin, few GOP lawmakers were willing to fully unload on him. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), who has been friends with Manchin for two decades, credited him and Sinema for their objections to Democrats’ plans last year, and professed respect for Manchin’s decisions.
“In this case, coming forward, he thinks he's made a good deal. Time will tell,” Rounds said. “I respect him. But I think in this particular case, they might have sold him a bill of goods.”
Other Republican lawmakers believe it won’t be long before Manchin is back in their good graces. Asked about Manchin’s turn-around, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) joked, “He’s dead to us!”
While he called his friend’s deal a “big diversion,” Cramer suggested that his GOP colleagues sometimes forget something important. “Every now and then, Joe reminds us that he is a Democrat,” he said. “But the reason he disappoints is because so often he’s with us, and we have to remember that.”
Although Cramer predicted Manchin’s move might strain relationships for “a while,” he predicted Republicans would get over it.
“Joe has a kind of a remarkable way of building bridges,” he said, “more so than burning them.”
—with reporting from Ursula Perano