WHAT IS THE TROUBLE with the Democratic Party? Are they going crazy? They have the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives. They have full control of the Executive and Legislative branches of government! They haven’t done so well in a very long time. They passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which surpassed any government program since the “Great Deal” programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wowee! And as soon as they clinked the celebratory champagne glasses, they went on their victory lap on a roller coaster around the Beltway.
All along, the senator from one of the poorest – if not the poorest — states in the union was having a good time riding in the supercharged Biden economic train. And then, something hit his cranium. It might have occurred to him, “Why did I not take charge of this train and derail it and then I’ll take charge of where I want it to go?” Hmm…
And so Sen. Joe Manchin put on the brakes and went to – of all places – “Fox News Sunday” on December 19 and announced, “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.” Then he said, “If I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. This is a no.” Whoa! What the hell is going on?
Manchin’s public announcement on his stand on Build Back Better (BBB) prompted a swift rebuttal from the White House, which slammed Manchin for making “a sudden and inexplicable reversal” and torpedoing Biden’s signature legislation.
What has Manchin against the $1.9 trillion spending plan that is focused on expanding the nation’s social safety net? The BBB would reduce Americans’ childcare and health care costs, and climate change. It is imperative that the Democrats pass this legislation using a budget reconciliation process, which would only require a simple majority – 51 votes – to pass.
The BBB is primarily for the benefit of the poor and middle class Americans, which makes one wonder: Why is Manchin against it? Could it be the $555 billion earmarked to subsidize transitioning the country to clean sources of energy and electric vehicles, which would be detrimental to the coal mining industry?
It’s interesting to note that Manchin has holdings in Enersystems, Inc. – the coal brokerage business he founded — valued at $1 million to $5 million, in which he made more than $491,000 from it.
“Manchin is a walking conflict of interest,” said a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen. “And what makes it all the more troubling is that he’s the 50th Democratic senator, which gives him enormous sway over climate change policy.”
The 50th senator
Last December 20, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed former Senator Bob Kerrey. They talked about what happened in 1993 when Kerrey was in the same predicament as Manchin is today – the 50th Democratic senator to vote on an important bill – a massive budget reconciliation bill, which if not passed could sink the presidency of Bill Clinton.
The Democrats had a majority of 56 senators then. But six Democratic senators were opposed to the Democratic President’s legislation, 49 senators were in favor. And one Democratic senator – Bob Kerrey — was undecided.
Kerrey had been a big star in Washington from his first day. He arrived as a Vietnam combat veteran who had won the Medal of Honor for combat engagement in which he lost his leg in the battlefield. Clinton pleaded with Kerrey that he needed his vote. “My presidency is going to go down,” he said shouting. Kerrey shouted back.
Finally, on the night of the vote, Kerrey entered the Senate chamber and everyone in the Senate and everyone at the White House held their breath. Kerrey then announced that he was voting yes. Then he said, “President Clinton, if you’re watching now as I suspect you are, I tell you this: I could not and should not cast the vote that brings down your presidency. You have made mistakes and know it far better than I. But you do not deserve and America cannot afford to have you spend the next 60 days quibbling over whether or not we should have this cut or this tax increase.”
Kerrey ended his speech in a conciliatory way. “The challenge for us,” he said. “And too much is at stake for us to even consider the possibility of failure, is for us to end this distrust and put this too partisan debate behind us. And for the sake of our place in history rise to the high road the occasion requires.” A class act indeed.
That was 28 years ago when senators would rise to the occasion of bipartisanship in a moment when the presidency was doomed had the Senate failed to deliver a win for the president. That was statesmanship of the highest order – to forego one’s personal beliefs for the sake of unity and teamwork. He had the same spirit when he was on the battlefield in Vietnam, and lost his leg fighting for his teammates and for his country.
Déjà vu all over again
Likewise, Biden’s presidency is doomed to fail if Manchin will vote “No” on the BBB bill. But fellow Democrats had come out in support of Biden. Sen. Bernie Sanders blasted Manchin, saying: “He’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia.”
“If Mr. Manchin doesn’t want to support us, look, we’ve been dealing with Mr. Manchin month after month after month,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday. “But if he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing for the working families of West Virginia and America, let him vote no in front of the whole world.”
In the end, Manchin said that between ongoing inflation, the national debt, “geopolitical unrest,” and the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBB being pushed by his fellow Democrats was too much. “I’ve done humanly possible,” Manchin said. He said he couldn’t explain to his constituents why he would vote for the bill.
But Sen. Manchin, all you have to do is tell your constituents that BBB would uplift them from poverty, create jobs for them, provide child tax credits to the poor and middle class families. But most of all, the BBB would extend an excise tax that funds a trust that would provide benefits to certain coal miners’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as “black lung disease.” Aren’t these enough for you to vote for the BBB, Sen. Manchin?
But at the end of the day, what matters most was that a few weeks ago, you committed to President Biden to support the BBB framework, which Biden subsequently announced. You pledged repeatedly to negotiate on finalizing the framework “in good faith.” After all, you got all you had demanded by whittling the package from $3.5 trillion down to $1.75 trillion. That’s a lot of moolah! And then, the devil hit you! You went to Fox News and announced your vote was “No.”
Many Democrats felt betrayed. You gave them your word and you reneged on it. And in politics, you only have your word to go by in any negotiation. Without it you’re nothing.
After the bombshell that Manchin dropped at Fox News, Biden and Manchin spoke over the phone. It was reported that the conversation was cordial, and signaled talks would continue after the New Year.
Quo vadis, Joe Manchin?