For the past two years, Senator Joe Manchin’s word has been as good as law. The thin Democratic majority in the House and the 50-50 margin in the Senate meant that Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had no choice but to do everything they could to keep the conservative Democratic Senator happy.
It was his opposition that killed Build Back Better, the Democrats’ social spending bill, and his subsequent negotiations with Mr Schumer that resurrected it in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act – the largest investment in combating climate change in US history. But the midterm elections have significantly reduced his influence.
The Republican’s narrow victory in the House means that Democrats won’t be passing any of their priorities soon. And because the Democrats held every Senate seat, including Raphael Warnock’s, while John Fetterman picked one up for them in Pennsylvania, they now have a spare Senate vote should Mr Manchin not like one of Mr Biden’s nominees (though it’s not enough for them to ignore his fellow traveler, Kyrsten Sinema).
When your dispatcher caught up with Mr Manchin on Wednesday, he seemed sanguine for a man whose power had been so suddenly diminished.
“I’m tickled to death about 51 votes, 51 Senators,” he told Inside Washington. “Everyone thinks just because it’s a 50-50, or one decision, one vote, but basically, there’s a lot of other things in the background.”
Among those: the makeup of the chamber’s all-important committees. As we explained on Wednesday, the 50-50 balance of the Senate meant that Republicans and Democrats had an equal number of members on each panel. The one extra seat earned by Mr Fetterman means that Democrats will have majorities to work with, making it dramatically easier for them to confirm nominees and move legislation out of committee to the floor.
“That’s a great thing,” Mr Manchin, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told The Independent – while insisting he is hopeful that both parties can work together in a divided Congress.
“If everyone puts our country first and quits worrying about the political parties, we’ll be great,” he said.
This comes as Mr Manchin begins to weigh whether to seek another term in the Senate. (“Oh, it has nothing to do with that,” he said.) At age 75, he’s somewhere in the middle of the pack for a US Senator in age. But he would be running for re-election in a state that Donald Trump won by almost 39 points in 2020. Additionally, his approval rating declined after he cut the deal with Mr Schumer to pass the IRA, and Mr Trump has made him a target at his grievance-filled rallies.
He’s just one of three Democrats from states that voted for Mr Trump who is up for re-election in 2024. the others being Senator Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Mr Manchin, who hails from a state that long served as a bastion for coal and whose residents maintain that image of itself, undoubtedly will have the toughest fight.
The Democrats have a narrow path to keeping the Senate in 2024, facing as they do a map that offers few realistic pickup opportunities. Assuming they can hold seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Ms Sinema’s seat in Arizona, they can only afford to lose one of those three Trump-state senators.
Meanwhile, Mr Manchin’s effectiveness on behalf of his state’s energy interests is not a foregone conclusion. He lost a major fight this week when his push to reform the way that major energy projects are approved failed to make it into the National Defense Authorization Act. As we explained earlier this year, this was part of the deal he brokered with Mr Schumer, but few Republicans seemed interested in helping Mr Manchin pass it into law, especially after what they view as his deceptive behavior in negotiating the Inflation Reduction Act behind their backs.
Mr Manchin now hopes to add the measure to the must-pass legislation as an amendment. With his seat in the balance, the future of the Democratic majority in the Senate might depend on it.