Is Joe Manchin holding democracy hostage? His colleagues won’t say.

Tom Brenner/Reuters/File
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia speaks to reporters before attending a meeting on infrastructure on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 23, 2021.
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Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin arguably has more influence in Washington right now than the other prominent Joe, who resides at the White House. The president’s key priorities have been bundled in a budget that Senate Democrats can pass through a process known as reconciliation – but only if every single one of them votes yes. And the West Virginian senator has made clear that his vote is far from guaranteed.

A framework for the bill outlines major investments in education, health care, and combating climate change. Mr. Manchin, who hails from a coal state that voted for President Donald Trump by a margin of 39 percentage points in 2020, has signaled his opposition to its $3.5 trillion price tag at a time of rising inflation.

Why We Wrote This

Increasingly, the ideal of a republic that puts some guardrails on popular passions is being criticized by those who feel that a majority-wins system would be fairer. How much power should one lawmaker have?

Many Democratic voters feel it is not only unfair, but also undemocratic for a senator who represents just 1.8 million voters to hold such sway. Indeed, beyond the debate over progressive priorities lies a deeper question: Is democracy well served when a single senator can wield so much power?

“If there’s anyone who’s going to be in that position, I’m glad that he is there,” says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “It shows, however, the fragility of the institution.”

Inside the air-conditioned halls of the august U.S. Capitol, reporters and lawmakers alike are jockeying for a word with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the fiscally conservative Democrat who is threatening to hold up his party’s $3.5 trillion signature budget bill.

Outside, in the sweltering September sun, protester Cathy Hook is demanding he answer a simple question: “Which side are you on?” 

Walking past the Capitol in jeans and hiking boots with her sister, sweat beading on their brows after attending a voting rights rally, Ms. Hook calls Senator Manchin “the main obstacle” to the Democratic agenda, which the party is struggling to advance – despite controlling the House, Senate, and White House. 

Why We Wrote This

Increasingly, the ideal of a republic that puts some guardrails on popular passions is being criticized by those who feel that a majority-wins system would be fairer. How much power should one lawmaker have?

If the Democrats are unable to get anything done with that rare hold on power, she says, “We will not have democracy. We barely have it now.”

With an evenly divided Senate, Mr. Manchin arguably has more influence in Washington at the moment than the other prominent Joe, who resides at the White House. The president’s key priorities have been bundled in a budget that the Democrats can pass without a single Republican vote through a fast-track process known as reconciliation – but only if every single one of them votes yes. And Mr. Manchin has made clear that his vote is far from guaranteed. 

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Cathy Hook, who has been protesting in the nation’s capital for decades, wants Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to answer a simple question: "Which side are you on?" She and her sister attended a voting rights rally Sept. 14, while inside the Capitol senators jockeyed for a word with Senator Manchin, who opposes his party’s proposal to spend $3.5 trillion on social reforms at a time of ballooning national debt.

A preliminary framework for the bill outlined major investments in education, such as universal pre-K and free community college; in health care, including expanding Medicare benefits to cover dental, vision, and hearing, and lowering the eligibility age; in border security and legalizing “qualified” immigrants; and in combating climate change, including transitioning the federal fleet of vehicles to electric and funding low-income solar power. The framework proposed a $3.5 trillion price tag to be “fully offset by a combination of new tax revenues, health care savings, and long-term economic growth.” The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated, however, that the true cost could be as high as $5.5 trillion per decade. 

Mr. Manchin, the sole Democratic member of Congress from a state that is the nation’s No. 2 coal producer and that voted for President Donald Trump by a margin of 39 percentage points in 2020, recently signaled his opposition to such an expensive bill at a time of rising inflation and ballooning national debt. Earlier this year, he opposed the party’s premier voting rights bill (though he now supports a different version), and he has refused to scrap the filibuster, preventing Senate Democrats from passing most bills without cajoling at least 10 Republicans to join them.

Many Democratic voters feel it is not only deeply unfair, but also undemocratic for a senator who represents just 1.8 million voters – from one of the whitest states in an increasingly diverse nation – to hold such sway. Indeed, beyond the debate over expanding Medicare benefits, child care subsidies, or other progressive priorities, and beyond the speculation about whether Mr. Manchin is grandstanding or acting from deep-rooted conviction, lies a deeper question: Is democracy well served when a single senator can wield so much power?

“I’m a good friend of Joe’s, so if there’s anyone who’s going to be in that position, I’m glad that he is there,” says Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. “It shows, however, the fragility of the institution.”

To Senator Collins, a longtime champion of bipartisanship, it’s concerning that the center has become such a lonely place in the Senate. It’s not so much that Mr. Manchin has moved away from his party, as that his party has moved away from him as it has come to embrace more progressive policies. 

Critics on the left say he is a relic of a clubby system that still often operates like an old boys’ network. In particular, they criticize his refusal to scrap the filibuster, which was historically used by Southern lawmakers to block civil rights bills. Without the filibuster, Democrats could capitalize on their party’s rare trifecta of power to advance sweeping reforms, many of which are aimed to help minority and working-class Americans.

In an April op-ed for The Washington Post, Mr. Manchin – one of only three Democrats to vote against scrapping the filibuster for Cabinet appointees and federal judges when his party was last in power – argued that the procedure is crucial for maintaining democracy because it preserves a voice for rural Americans and promotes bipartisan cooperation that leads to more robust and lasting solutions. “The truth is, my Democratic friends do not have all the answers and my Republican friends do not, either,” he wrote. 

For now, however, Senate rules are Senate rules, and Democratic senators speak carefully when asked about voters’ frustrations that Mr. Manchin is holding up their agenda. 

“We’re all working on it right now,” says Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, power-walking back toward the Senate office buildings after a vote. “We all understand the urgency of getting through the kind of changes our country needs – from child care to fighting climate change. And no one has given up on anyone.”

“Mountaineers are always free”

On Tuesday, Mr. Manchin – a 6-foot-3-inch former football player – strode up the central aisle of the Senate to cast a vote, then ambled to the dais where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was presiding over the chamber. “What’s going on?” he asked, before kneeling next to her leather swivel chair for a tête-à-tête. He held out several long fingers, as if counting off; Senator Sinema of Arizona, the only other Democrat to publicly express reservations about the price tag of the reconciliation bill, tapped her fingers on the desk. 

In front of her was a chart of the chamber, with senators’ seats fanned out in a semicircle – Republicans on her left, Democrats on her right. She and Mr. Manchin occupy just two of those 100 seats. But in the unique math of the Senate, they in many ways have more influence than all the other 98 senators combined on this budget reconciliation bill. 

On Wednesday, each had private meetings at the White House with President Joe Biden, a veteran of the Senate who is exerting his presidential power to try to corral the Democratic caucus into unified action. 

Mr. Biden succeeded in persuading Mr. Manchin to vote for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in the spring, but not without scaling back the expansion of unemployment benefits. He may succeed this time, too, but there will likely be a price. 

Mr. Manchin, noting that Congress has already approved $5.4 trillion in spending – some of which has yet to be spent – has expressed reservations about rushing through a mammoth bill before duly considering what American needs remain unmet, and how best to pay for them.

Critics say his resistance – particularly to the climate initiatives in the bill, including transitioning away from fossil fuels – is driven largely by ties to the energy industry. As the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, from a state where coal and natural gas play a pivotal role in the economy, he is the recipient of substantial campaign donations from energy companies and interest groups, according to the campaign finance website

Some see in Mr. Manchin the same independent streak his state is famous for, summed up in the motto they chose after breaking away from Virginia: Montani semper liberi – “Mountaineers are always free.” In colorful language, he’s happy to tell anyone who will listen that he doesn’t care if he gets reelected, and he won’t vote for something he doesn’t like or can’t explain. It may help that he’s well into his 70s and has already held just about every political office but the presidency: state legislator, state senator, West Virginia secretary of state, governor, and now U.S. senator. Those who have watched his long political career say it’s vintage Joe to take a tough stand – and it has nothing to do with a desire to hold the limelight.

“What we’re reading about and observing in West Virginia is the Joe Manchin we’ve known all these years. He hasn’t changed a lick,” says Mayor Steve Williams of Huntington, West Virginia, who has known Mr. Manchin since they served together in the state legislature decades ago. 

“Joe is going to do what he believes is right for this nation,” Mayor Williams says. “Anybody who’s saying that it’s anything other than that is just revealing that they do not know Joe Manchin.”

The only Democrat who can win in West Virginia?

Mr. Manchin is the only elected Democrat in federal or statewide office left standing in West Virginia, which has undergone a dramatic shift in recent decades from a working-class Democratic stronghold to deep-red territory. It voted for Mr. Trump by wider margins than almost any other state in both 2016 and 2020. While many liberal elites disdain such bastions of Trump support, Mr. Manchin stands up for his constituents, acknowledging “all they’ve contributed to this great country.” 

“A lot of good people,” he says. “I want to make sure they’re respected and represented.” 

He’s also unabashed about making friends – and deals – with Republicans. When his father, a furniture store owner, needed help from his congressman to get a small-business loan, he confessed to the GOP congressman that he’d voted for his opponent. The congressman, Arch Moore, helped him anyway – and the family never forgot it. Today, Mr. Manchin serves alongside Mr. Moore’s daughter, GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. 

“The people of West Virginia really like it when they see the two of us working together – that’s the most positive feedback I get,” she says, noting their work together on the Senate’s infrastructure package, which now awaits passage in the House. “We’re interested in getting things done. And we’re tough, so if it gets a little rough, we’re able to handle that.”

Mr. Manchin has carved out one of Washington’s few spaces for bipartisan socializing, hosting dinners and cruises on his houseboat, Almost Heaven, where he lives while in the capital. Mr. Manchin has leaned in hard to the image of a moderate deal-maker with friends on both sides of the aisle, a last vestige of civility and compromise in an increasingly gridlocked institution that has seen its public support drop to the single digits.  

“He has been extremely successful at finding that middle ground and threading the political needle,” says Hoppy Kercheval, a prominent broadcaster who hosts West Virginia’s MetroNews Talkline.

With three years to go in his term, Mr. Manchin’s approval ratings in his state are above water, with 42% of West Virginia voters approving of his job performance and 37% disapproving in one recent survey. But that’s lower than Senator Capito’s approval rating of 52%, and far lower than GOP Gov. Jim Justice’s, at 61%. Many pundits say Mr. Manchin is almost certainly the last Democrat who could ever be elected senator in West Virginia today.

Still, some activists say Democrats are setting their sights too low. 

“People spend lots of time and money and oxygen saying that nothing can change, that Senator Manchin is the best we can hope for,” says Stephen Smith, who ran as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2020, losing in the primary by 6 points. “It is exactly that kind of thinking that leads to a situation where we in West Virginia are completely unrepresented by either political party.”

Mr. Smith, who co-founded WV Can’t Wait, a grassroots movement to “win a people’s government” in the state, sees Mr. Manchin as part of a class of entrenched politicians from both parties who have utterly failed to change the trajectory of a state that has seen its population drop. West Virginia has one of the highest poverty rates in America and the lowest life expectancy, and faces an ongoing opioid epidemic and an HIV outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled the most concerning in the nation. 

“We’ve got no problem with an elected official being powerful. Lord knows it’s been a long time since West Virginia has had any influence over the national debate,” adds Mr. Smith. “But we do have a problem when they use that power to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.” 

More going on behind the scenes

Democrats point out that while it’s true they can’t pass their budget without Mr. Manchin’s support (unless they somehow get a Republican on board instead), that’s also the case for every single member of the Senate. And there’s more going on behind the scenes than may be readily apparent. 

“All 50 of us have complete veto power over this. Some want to negotiate in public, and some negotiate in private – but we all have the exact same ability to say, I need to see this, I don’t want to see that,” says Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who sits on the Budget Committee headed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is spearheading the bill. “Joe may be more public in his negotiation, but we’re all negotiating the things we care about.”

Speaking of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Kaine notes that he “is trying to carry out 50 negotiations at the same time.”

That’s not a job Texas Sen. John Cornyn envies, having been the Republican whip who had to corral the GOP caucus in support of its 2017 tax bill, which was also passed through budget reconciliation. 

“I can tell you it was a heavy, heavy lift, just to get everybody within our own caucus on the same page,” Senator Cornyn says. “So I’m sort of enjoying watching our Democratic friends try to pull this thing off.” 

Appearing on CNN last weekend, Senator Sanders offered a typically blunt salvo, saying Mr. Manchin’s call for a much lower price tag was “absolutely not acceptable.”

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to the president, to the American people, or to the overwhelming majority of the Democratic caucus,” said Mr. Sanders, who had initially wanted nearly $6 trillion in spending. “I believe we’re going to all sit down and work together and come up with a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which deals with the enormously unmet needs of working families.”

For the most part, however, Mr. Manchin’s Democratic colleagues are treading carefully. It may not be only the budget bill they’re worried about. Some were around in 2001 – in another evenly divided Senate – when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont abruptly decided to leave the GOP, throwing control of the chamber to Democrats. 

“I’m working closely with Chairman Manchin,” says Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who chairs the Finance Committee, when asked about Democratic voters who are frustrated that Mr. Manchin is wielding so much influence over the reconciliation bill. 

“We’re continuing to have conversations,” says Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who serves on the Budget Committee.

California Sen. Alex Padilla goes a bit further: “I think Democratic voters should know that there are a lot of Democratic senators working on Joe Manchin,” he says, “starting with reminding him that it’s not just about how much we want to invest, but that we can do so in a fiscally responsible way.”  

As Senator Warren said, no one has given up on anyone. They can’t afford to. 

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