The man Sen. Joe Manchin III replaced as a senator from West Virginia, Robert C. Byrd, was so deft at securing federal funds — and non-coal jobs — for his needy constituents that the landlocked Mountain State boasts a Coast Guard maritime center. In 2005 when he dedicated a biotechnology science center, one of dozens of places in the state bearing his name, Byrd told the crowd, “You’re looking at Big Daddy!”
Byrd made the most of the Democratic leadership posts he held for most of his 51 years in the Senate. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who served alongside him for half that time, had less power but was equally zealous about seeking federal money for social programs benefiting children and the working poor.
Many West Virginians “are fighting to survive,” he said in his Senate farewell address in 2014, adding, “I believe genuinely in the ability of the government to do good, to serve and to right injustices.”
Manchin is a different sort of Democrat. Just ask him.
“I’m totally out of sync with 48 other Democrats,” he said, referring to other senators, at a dinner party Monday at elite Washingtonians’ see-and-be-seen nightspot, Cafe Milano.
Much of the country has figured out as much when it comes to both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another out-of-sync Democrat. Months of coverage of their resistance to President Biden’s domestic agenda has built to a tiresome crescendo, as Democrats seek the right combination of spending cuts and taxes on the wealthy to satisfy them without alienating progressives and end this damaging intraparty fight.
You might cut Manchin some slack. Unlike Sinema, who’s from a purple state, he is from a deeply red state that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump twice. He probably will be the last Democratic senator from West Virginia for years; without him Democrats wouldn’t have a majority.
That is what gives Manchin, who represents a population less than 5% of California’s, his incredible leverage. Yet his socially conservative, corporate-friendly stance defined him long before Republicans captured his state, through his 40-year climb from state offices to the governorship and then, after Byrd’s death in 2010, the Senate.
But now that he is exposed to a national audience, many Americans are asking: Why is he opposing social spending and tax credits that would help his impoverished state, perhaps more than any other? And as he opposes initiatives to alleviate climate change, in the interests of his state’s coal and gas companies, what is he doing to help prepare West Virginia’s 1.8 million people (largely white, aging and working-class) for the inevitable phase-out of fossil fuels? Queries to his Senate office went unanswered.
Few states are as reliant as West Virginia on federal money, or get back more than residents pay in taxes. In both 2020 and 2019 (before federal pandemic relief flowed to millions nationwide), a higher share of West Virginians’ personal income came from federal transfer payments — for retirement and disability, healthcare, veterans’ compensation, unemployment aid, food assistance — than in any other state. According to data compiled for The Times by an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Manchin’s constituents relied on federal aid for 33.3% of all personal income last year. That compares with 20% in California.
The liberal West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy wrote this week, “The legislation Joe Manchin is holding up would help his state — a lot.” It cited the bill’s proposals for paid family and medical leave, home healthcare services, an extension of this year’s monthly child tax credit and tax incentives for “the clean energy jobs of the future.”
Already Manchin and Sinema have succeeded in cutting the initial cost of the social spending package, $3.5 trillion over 10 years, roughly in half. Manchin has made clear that he opposes paid family leave (even after Biden lowered the proposed guarantee from 12 weeks to four), tuition-free community college, expanded Medicare and Medicaid, and the package’s core climate change initiatives.
And he really doesn’t like the child tax credit, which was increased this year and paid out on a monthly basis so that most working families receive $300 a month for each child under 6 years old and $250 for those 6 to 17 years old.
He’s demanded work requirements and means testing as conditions for eligibility for aid. “I cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving towards an entitlement mentality, that you’re entitled. I’m more of a ‘rewarding,’ ” he’s told reporters.
How many families in his state are single-parent households with women holding down jobs and desperate for child care? In places like West Virginia devastated by drug addictions, more grandparents are raising kids. Should they have to meet work requirements?
Democrats who know Manchin tell me that he doesn’t want to kill Biden’s spending plan; back home, he talks of how much the state stands to gain from it, and from a companion infrastructure package. Yet, they say, he really believes that too many people are looking for handouts, for “free stuff.” He’s afraid the child credit money could just go toward more drugs in towns already ravaged by opioids. He has previously called for random drug checks “if you’re on a public check.”
And he knows that the people most in need of federal benefits don’t vote, while many just above them on the economic rungs resent those “on the draw.” This group does vote — mostly Republican. Manchin wants to be in sync.