Manchin sees himself as shuttle diplomat from Democrats to McCarthy

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is seeking to carve out a new role for himself now that he’s no longer the power broker that he was in last year’s 50-50 Senate.

Manchin now envisions himself as a shuttle diplomat working to bridge the partisan divide between Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whom Manchin describes as a friend.

“I’ve always had a good, friendly relationship with Kevin, and he’s in a position now where if we try to work together we can do a lot of good for our country,” Manchin said.

Manchin is disputing the narrative being pushed by Schumer and other Democrats that McCarthy is tilting too far to the right for Democrats to consider engaging with the new GOP Speaker.

“He wants things to go, he wants things to happen. … We talked about things we could reach an agreement on,” Manchin said after meeting with McCarthy in the Capitol last week.

“He showed a great interest in trying to get things accomplished,” Manchin added, though he acknowledged that because of the slim House GOP majority and the opposition McCarthy faced from conservatives during his bid to get elected Speaker, he “has a real tough hand.”

Manchin said McCarthy agreed to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits from cuts, an important issue for the West Virginia senator. Manchin has estimated that about 60 percent of retirees in his state rely almost exclusively on those programs to afford living expenses.

Fellow Democrats who don’t want to negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling are “unreasonable,” according to Manchin.

“It’s unreasonable for any senator, any congressperson representing the United States government to say, ‘I’m not going to negotiate,’” he said. “If you can’t communicate and you won’t talk to each other, you got a problem.”

Senate Republicans are cheering on Manchin because they think he’s putting pressure on Biden and Schumer to negotiate a deficit-reduction package with House Republicans in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

“I’m certain that some of our leadership in the House probably welcomes input from a Democrat who’s going to support right-of-center policies,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.).

Thune said “I think it does” put pressure on Biden to sit down with McCarthy to hammer out a deal on raising the debt limit.

“At some point there will be a negotiation. It’s a question not of ‘if’ but ‘when,’” he said.

Manchin’s jockeying shows that he wants to stay in the middle of Congress’s biggest negotiations.

He said he also discussed energy permitting reform, one of his top priorities, with McCarthy, one of the few areas of potential common ground between Senate Democrats and House Republicans.

If Manchin can stay as relevant in Washington’s new environment of divided government, he’ll have more incentive to run for reelection in 2024, even against a potentially tough Republican opponent like Gov. Jim Justice.

Republican strategists think Justice is looking seriously at challenging Manchin.

One GOP strategist said that Justice “all but declared” his intention to run for Manchin’s seat at his State of the State address this month, when he declared “I surely won’t go away.”

“You know, in fact, you’re probably either able to find me at home or you may find me in Washington,” he said.

Justice, who will have to step down as governor at the end of 2024 because of term limits, said this month that he’s “seriously considering running for Senate.”

Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist based in Charleston, W.Va., suggested that Manchin’s decision to challenge Democratic leaders’ decision not to negotiate with McCarthy is a sign he’s gearing up for another Senate run.

“Anything Joe Manchin does that underscores his independence from the national party, I think speaks to voters back in West Virginia who are outside of the traditional Democratic base and who identify more with Republicans,” he said. “I know they admire Joe’s independence.”

Plante said Manchin’s approval rating in the state took a hit after he voted for last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which included prescription drug reform, investments to fight climate change and established a minimum corporate tax.

But he said that recent national polling shows that most voters, including most independents, don’t want to see that law and its popular prescription drug reforms repealed.

John Kilwein, a professor of political science at West Virginia University, said Manchin “spanking” Democrats for refusing to negotiate with McCarthy plays well in the state, which former President Trump carried with 69 percent of the vote in 2020.

“It keeps him in the news and communicates to his electorate, ‘I’m a common-sense guy, I’ll work with anybody. I’ll also reprimand members of my own party who I think are not in a common-sense place,’” Kilwein said.

Manchin, who is 75, hasn’t yet said whether he will run for a fourth Senate term in 2024.

But Kilwein questioned whether Manchin is going to have much success bringing McCarthy to the center, given his tenuous hold on the Speaker’s gavel and the power that a small group of conservatives have to call a snap election to remove him from power.

“I don’t think anybody can talk that wing out of doing this [government] shutdown,” he said.

Another big question is whether Manchin can get any Democrats to follow his lead in sitting down with McCarthy.

Schumer has urged President Biden not to attempt any negotiation with McCarthy over raising the debt limit until the Speaker proves he has 218 votes to pass whatever fiscal reforms he wants to attach to debt limit legislation through the House.

In that way, this year’s political dynamic is very different than 2011 — Manchin’s first year in the Senate — when then-President Obama readily agreed to negotiate with then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) over attaching spending cuts to a debt limit deal.

Manchin does have some leverage over fellow Democrats in that they desperately need him to run for reelection to keep his West Virginia Senate seat.

The tensions that built up between Manchin and many Senate Democratic colleagues during his protracted negotiations with Biden and then Schumer over the president’s climate agenda evaporated quickly after Manchin announced last summer that he would vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, which invested $369 billion into building a clean energy economy.

A Senate Democratic aide says Manchin has free rein to reach out to McCarthy and other Republicans but predicted that he’s not going to bring along more than one or two centrists, like independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), with him.

“Who else besides Manchin” is reaching out to McCarthy, the aide asked.

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