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It’s Joe Manchin vs. the World, and Manchin Is Winning

For the time being and the foreseeable future, Manchin and his corporate sponsors hold the top cards.

Sen. Joe Manchin leaves a Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol October 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The unspoken mantra of the Trump administration was, “The cruelty is the point.” It would not surprise me to learn those same words are written on the walls of the inner Capitol Hill offices of Sen. Joe Manchin and his staff. The man certainly has taken Congress, the people, the country and indeed the planet on a brutal ride through the soaring peaks of his own self-regard, and for what?

He’s gotten to see his name in the paper on a daily basis (another favorite Trump pastime), sucked in huge amounts of energy industry campaign donations, and he has defended the sanctity of his own stinking coal fortune against silly notions like the impending end of the world.

Senator Manchin has done this by playing hide-and-seek with his intentions for months, and now the whole program may come crashing down. I guess he didn’t enjoy chairing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee very much, because if his actions cause President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda to implode, he and the Democrats, once again in the congressional minority, will be back to watching Mitch McConnell decide which pieces of legislation see daylight. McConnell is the same fellow, you’ll note, who won’t let any Republicans vote to avoid a government shutdown or a massive global economic calamity. Manchin will be fine, though; he has his coal mines and his coal money nailed down tight.

Since the summer, Manchin has made it all about cost, but refused to publicly disclose what he deemed an acceptable price tag would be for Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus — which has already retreated on price and policy a half-dozen times in the face of corporate conservative Democratic intransigence, in the name of getting a good bill done — appeared to have contrived an elegant solution: Chop the time frame of the bill in half, which chops the price in half. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared open to the idea, and there was suddenly serious movement toward a solution.

Not so fast, said Manchin. See, it was never about the money, you guys. I was just saying that. It was really about the fact that my paymasters detest the climate provisions in the BBB Act, and well, you know how that goes, right? The mere possibility that the Build Back Better Act might become real motivated the West Virginia coal baron to swing into action. What followed was the mother of all “Friday news dumps”:

The most powerful part of President Biden’s climate agenda — a program to rapidly replace the nation’s coal- and gas-fired power plants with wind, solar and nuclear energy — will likely be dropped from the massive budget bill pending in Congress, according to congressional staffers and lobbyists familiar with the matter.

Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia whose vote is crucial to passage of the bill, has told the White House that he strongly opposes the clean electricity program, according to three of those people. As a result, White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision, and are trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions.

The $150 billion clean electricity program was the muscle behind Mr. Biden’s ambitious climate agenda. It would reward utilities that switched from burning fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and penalize those that do not. Experts have said that the policy over the next decade would drastically reduce the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet and that it would be the strongest climate change policy ever enacted by the United States.

Memo to Manchin, West Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and every other state that puts coal ahead of breathing: It’s done. It’s over. It’s hard, but we have to find something else for you to do. We can spend some money now and make the change easier, or we can lose a few cities to climate-driven superstorms and infernos and spend 10 times as much playing catch-up, at which point you’ll likely get half of what you need because we waited too long, thanks to people like Joe Manchin.

“As a result, White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision,” reads the Times report, because Biden’s people want and need to get something out of this frazzled mess before the roof caves in… which is where Manchin’s real cruelty, his genuinely diabolical cruelty, reared its scaled head. Just in case those industrious White House staffers were able to salvage actual climate protections from the tatters left by Manchin’s Friday declaration, a second Manchin missive came down the pike on Sunday to gum up the works even further.

“Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has told the White House the child tax credit must include a firm work requirement and family income cap in the $60,000 range,” reported Axios. Not only is such a demand well into the final-straw red zone for progressives who have already bent over backwards to appease “moderates” like Manchin. It would deal a serious blow to what is undeniably an incredibly effective program. A temporary version of it has been in effect by way of COVID relief funding, and has dramatically reduced child poverty in the U.S. It works, and it works well, so Manchin opposes it.

It is difficult to find the words to describe this ghoulish man and his James Cagney fashion sense, but it is not hard at all to explain his impact on the lives of every living thing on the planet. “He plans to gut Biden’s climate plan, and with it the chances for swift global progress,” tweeted author and activist Bill McKibben. “This is high on the list of most consequential actions ever taken by an individual Senator; you’ll be able to see the impact of this vain man in the geologic record.”

The worst part? There’s nothing for it. Manchin is not up for reelection until 2024. He chairs the Energy Committee, and so can’t be coerced with a promotion. If he quit tomorrow, West Virginia’s GOP Gov. Jim Justice would certainly appoint a Republican replacement, just as “Democrat” Manchin appointed a Democratic replacement for Robert Byrd in 2010 when Manchin was governor of West Virginia. That would automatically hand the Senate to McConnell. Push Manchin too hard and he could flip party affiliation, handing the Senate to McConnell.

Word began to bubble up on Monday that Manchin might have a sit down with Bernie Sanders, who has done more than any other senator to see this process through to a just conclusion. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for this meeting if it happens, but I don’t see Manchin being swayed. If Biden can’t budge him, Bernie will probably have the same luck.

The only other possible alternative I see is for President Biden to (finally) lose patience with this small fraction of a leader (Manchin got 290,510 votes in 2018, Biden got more than 81 million two years later), and dare Manchin to kill a bill that would bring his own party down with it. This far, no farther.

It would be the bluff of the century, and Manchin might blink… but then again, he might not, and as the Times reported, the White House is already crabbing backward looking for “acceptable” alternatives. Pro tip: There are none. This, again, is a commonality shared by Manchin and Trump. Neither wants anything beyond the attention and the money. End of file. You can’t bargain with that, because they are not here to bargain.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Dark Knight, when Batman is mercilessly pummeling the Joker, and the Joker is laughing hysterically throughout. “You have nothing,” he cackles, “nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.”

For the time being and the foreseeable future, Manchin and his corporate sponsors hold the top cards. Unless something spectacular happens, there are no good ways out of this. The Joker was right: Everything burns.