WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell is done with subtleties. The Senate Republican leader is putting his party’s courtship of Joe Manchin on full public display after the West Virginia Democrat’s fractious split with the White House over the president’s big social and environmental spending package.
McConnell says Manchin “feels like a man alone” and if he were to switch parties, “he would be joining a lot of folks who have similar views on a whole range of issues.”
Whether Manchin is open to McConnell’s appeal — he has consistently said he still sees himself as a Democrat — is uncertain. But it is clear that if he were to switch it would fundamentally alter the balance of power in Washington as well as seriously threaten Joe Biden’s legislative prospects for the rest of his presidency.
McConnell dangled the prospect of Manchin retaining his prized Energy Committee chairmanship during an interview Wednesday and played up the West Virginian’s growing distance from Democrats in his opposition to Biden’s package.
A flip by Manchin would give Republicans control of the Senate and effectively end any chance of Democrats being able to get legislation or nominations through on party-line votes.
The rift escalated after Manchin said over the weekend that he couldn’t vote for the social spending package that Democrats have pitched as their top domestic priority going into next year’s elections.
“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,” Manchin told “Fox News Sunday.”
That prompted a sharply worded response from White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who said Manchin had “in person” given Biden a written proposal that was “the same size and scope” as a framework for the bill that Democrats rallied behind in October — and that he had agreed to continue talks.
“We will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word,” Psaki said.
The White House had basically called Manchin “a liar,” McConnell said in a radio appearance on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
“It was astonishing. Usually when you’ve got a member who is a little bit out of sync with everybody else, you give them a lot of love. They did exactly the opposite,” McConnell said.
He said he’s had conversations over the years with Manchin about his party affiliation.
“If he were to join us, he would be joining a lot of folks who have similar views on a whole range of issues.”
One big obstacle to a party switch would be Manchin’s vote in February in favor of the impeachment of former President Donald Trump for his actions during the violent insurrection at the Capitol. West Virginia voted for Trump by more than 2-to-1, and Trump has called for defeating Republicans who voted for impeachment.
But Manchin, the only Democrat in his state’s congressional delegation, is popular back home. He was twice elected governor before his election to the Senate in 2010. He’ll be up for re-election in 2024 should he decide to seek another term.
West Virginia is still coal country, and Democrat Manchin is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. If he were to switch parties, McConnell and the Republicans could choose a new chairman.
“That’s something we have talked to him about,” McConnell said. “Obviously, I’m sure he enjoyed being a chair of the committee. It’s important to West Virginia, and all of those things are things we have discussed.”
Manchin has long faced questions about his place in the Democratic Party, and the talk took on fresh urgency in October when a Mother Jones article said he had been telling associates he was seriously considering leaving the party. But six days after the article was published, while sitting down with the Economic Club in Washington, Manchin rejected the reports, saying “I don’t think the Rs would be any happier with me than Ds are right now.”
He added, “So I don’t know where in the hell I belong.”
The question has been posed to him repeatedly in the past few weeks, coming to a breaking point Monday morning, hours after he had publicly voiced his opposition to Biden’s bill.
“I would like to hope that there are still Democrats that feel like I do,” he said. “I’m fiscally responsible and socially compassionate.”
“Now, if there’s no Democrats like that, then they have to push me wherever they want.”
Party switching in the Senate is rare but has been consequential. Republicans lost control of the Senate two decades ago when James Jeffords of Vermont quit the party to become an independent. Jeffords, upset with President George W. Bush’s opposition to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, declared in May of 2001 that he would leave and caucus with the Democrats.
McConnell said Jeffords had “become very uncomfortable on our side.” He said Republican lawmakers courted him “because we were always fearful he would do exactly what he ended up doing. So, no, I mean, we certainly didn’t do anything like the White House did to Joe Manchin the other day.”
While all this swirls, Biden is making clear that he believes he can still reach an agreement with the West Virginian on a social spending package.
“Senator Manchin and I are going to get something done,” Biden declared at the White House on Tuesday.
Story by Kevin Freking and Farnoush Amiri