Going into Monday morning, the Biden White House and Senator Joe Manchin had to face two overarching facts. One is the red-hot frustration—and worse—the Biden administration feels toward Manchin, and the anger Manchin feels toward the Biden team. The second fact is that the two parties still need to work together.
“There’s no scenario that makes any sense that they would just burn down the house and stop talking with him, because they’ve got other business to do with him,” said Andy Winer, a former chief of staff to Senator Brian Schatz. “They can’t have him openly in conflict over a long period of time.”
The situation is a new but serious standoff that came about a day earlier when Manchin decided to go on Fox News Sunday and tell new host Bret Baier that he could not support the Biden administration’s Build Back Better social spending package. The timing of Manchin’s announcement, just a few days after he reportedly gave the White House a list of items he would support in the bill, came as a surprise to essentially everyone.
The White House didn’t see it coming until less than an hour before. Manchin’s colleagues didn’t know what he was going to do, either. House Democrats, of course, weren’t made aware.
The result was the equivalent of a nuclear bomb exploding on President Biden’s legislative agenda for at least the next year—and likely the rest of his term. In an evenly split Senate, Manchin’s influence is as large as it will ever be. Democrats can’t move anything without his support, and he knows that.
Even more infuriating for every Democrat not named Manchin, the West Virginia senator seemed to feel liberated enough to air his frustrations with Biden’s senior staff on Monday.
In an interview with West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval, the senator said in negotiating with Biden’s team he just got to his “wits’ end.” He added that the White House staff “drove some things, and they put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable. They know what it is.” He warned that he couldn’t be moved by Democrats within the party.
“They figure surely we can move one person, we can badger and beat up one person,” Manchin told the radio host. “I’m from West Virginia, I’m not from where they’re from, and think they can beat the living crap out of people.”
The anger at Manchin was shared across the party. Earlier Monday morning, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that Manchin had displayed an “enormous breach of the trust of the president.” A day earlier, the White House released a blistering response to Manchin’s announcement (blistering for a White House of the same party as the senator it is trying to excoriate) from press secretary Jen Psaki, describing Manchin’s “sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position” as a “breach of his commitments to the President and the Senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.” Biden himself directed his team to amp up the criticism in the statement.
Privately, White House aides fumed at Manchin all Sunday and into Monday. A set of talking points the White House distributed to surrogates I obtained read, “Manchin’s comments this morning are at odds with his public and private comments—including his word that he gave to the President.”
But for all the bashing from all sides within the Democratic Party, the fact is they need to go forward together. In an early Monday morning Dear Colleague letter from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat wrote, “Senators should be aware that the Senate will, in fact, consider the Build Back Better Act, very early in the new year so that every Member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television. We are going to vote on a revised version of the House-passed Build Back Better Act—and we will keep voting on it until we get something done.”
House progressives have been calling for a vote on the proposal so every federal lawmaker’s position on the Build Back Better proposals is on the record. They planned to have a widely attended conference call Monday afternoon to address the path forward. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats have a senators-only virtual conference to plot out a path forward. White House officials haven’t decided whether they should split up some of the more popular provisions in the BBB package and pass those.
Other Democratic strategists also fear that the months-long intraparty feuding over the domestic policy package will eclipse the administration’s other accomplishments in voters’ eyes.
“I thinks it’s unfortunate that Biden led and passed a major Covid relief bill and a huge important infrastructure package, and all people will talk about is this going down,” Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said in an email to me. “These individual policies in BBB are popular. They should separate and make a case for the ones that can help people now.”
Underneath the anger and frustration, Manchin’s move has befuddled Democratic officials and veterans of the Senate. “If this is a negotiating strategy, it’s a strange one,” Winer said.
There has always been a persistent rumor that Manchin could switch parties or leave the Democratic Party and continue to caucus with the party as an independent, but the West Virginia senator poured cold water on that on Monday. “I think I still represent the centrist, moderate wing of the Democratic Party,” Manchin told Kercheval on Monday. There’s also some question about whether Manchin would really want to make Mitch McConnell the majority leader, which his becoming a Republican would do. Manchin is known not to like McConnell due to the way McConnell interacted with him during the writing of the 2017 Trump tax bill.
In a year when Democrats have increasingly seethed at the conservative members of their party for holding up the White House’s agenda, Manchin will surely get the lion’s share of the fury going forward. Biden himself will likely hold some blame at the senator for a while—they didn’t talk at all Sunday, even after Manchin’s Fox News interview.
For months, Democrats have warned that the 2022 midterm elections could be deeply devastating for their party if they don’t pass sweeping infrastructure and popular social spending bills that candidates—especially the ones in red parts of the country—can run on. Now those candidates will have less to run on than they had hoped for.
There’s also that looming question of whether this little episode is the herald of Manchin indeed, finally, switching parties. That seems unlikely, though. As it stands, Manchin is one of the most powerful lawmakers in America, and some days, like Sunday, he’s the most powerful one. If he were to switch parties, he would actually be anointing McConnell the majority leader and cede his influence dramatically. The fact is that Manchin’s influence isn’t going away in these negotiations, and the White House knows that.