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A Transition to a Biden-Manchin Administration

Updated: Feb 17

By Jack Angus Nevin, MSc Comparative Public Policy

It’s morning again in Charleston. As a result of the transition from a Trump to Biden administration and the imminent transfer of power from Republicans to Democrats in the Senate, West Virginia may never have been as politically powerful as it will be over the next two years.

This newfound power is sourced from Senator Joe Manchin, former Secretary of State and Governor of West Virginia, and senior US Senator since 2010. The Democrat who held his seat by just 19,000 votes in 2018 will wield unparalleled levels of power in a deadlocked Senate. As the most conservative Democrat, representing a state which voted for Donald Trump by 30 points in 2020 and 32 points in 2016, Manchin will be able to effectively control agendas in a Senate which must see total Democratic unity in order for Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties.

While most work in the Senate requires 60 votes for passage, appointments and once a year budget reconciliation bills require a simple majority - meaning that if Manchin, or any other conservative Democrat such as Sinema of Arizona, balks, it shall not pass assuming a unified Republican front. In short, the road to progress runs through West Virginia.

While Manchin enjoys a warm relationship with President-elect Biden and harbours much antipathy to his Republican colleagues and their principles as of late, he stands on the other side of many partisan divides on issues popular with the national Democratic base - for example, on the call to defund the police he says “Defund the police? Defund, my butt.” He has unequivocally ruled out abolishing the filibuster and has refused as of recent to take a definitive stance on $2,000 direct economic relief payments. While he has signalled openness to the admittance of DC and Puerto Rico as the 51st and 52nd states, he’s hardly a friend to AOC and Bernie Sanders writing off many left-wing proposals as being part of a “crazy socialist agenda”.

The Mountain State was one of the most solidly Democratic states for years - with Democrats holding majorities in both chambers of the state legislature from 1930 to 2014 and consistently electing state-wide and federal Democrats. West Virginia has a tradition of producing well-known and influential Democrats including longest-ever-serving senator, Robert Byrd and Senator Jay Rockefeller. The West Virginian realignment was swift and it was sharp, swinging hard to the right, similar in severity and timeline to that of Arkansas. Manchin is currently the only statewide elected Democrat in West Virginia and one of the few in Appalachia at all.

Manchin wasn’t on the ballot in Georgia, where Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock unseated two incumbent Republican senators, but he most definitely emerged as the clear winner. Essentially able to restructure Democratic agenda to one of bipartisanship and moderation, Chuck Schumer may be the majority leader, but Joe Manchin will be the key to providing that very majority. Manchin doesn’t need the Democratic party, proudly being one of the very few remaining federally elected “Conservative Democrats”, the D next to his name is in almost all ways a liability rather than an asset. The Democratic Party most definitely needs Joe Manchin, however, and are thus willing to embrace him regardless of his A rating from the NRA and fervent support for the coal industry as the chair of the powerful Senate Energy Committee.

Wide swaths of the new, left and liberally leaning Democratic party base eyes Manchin with suspicion, him having voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh and a voting record more in line with Trump’s agenda than any other Democrat, voting Trump’s position 51% of the time, prominent in their minds. Senator Manchin, who didn’t endorse Obama for reelection in 2012, however is for better or worse Democrats best hope of enacting any kind of a liberal agenda or delivering a comprehensive COVID relief package. One can expect that nearly all legislation passed by this Congress will include generous benefits and federal funding devoted to West Virginia. A ‘Joe Manchin International Airport’ in Morgantown isn’t sounding too unrealistic.

Any Democrat hoping to play by hard-ball the way in which Republicans led by Mitch McConnell have the past seven years will almost surely be disappointed, with Manchin recently releasing a statement calling for increased bipartisanship and less tribalism,

“Now, more than ever, we must enter a new era of bipartisanship in Washington. With tight margins in the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans are faced with a decision to either work together to put the priorities of our nation before partisan politics or double down on the dysfunctional tribalism. To ensure we achieve this new era of bipartisanship let us all commit to restoring decency and civility to our politics, and becoming the example of governing the American people deserve and the world expects.”

This transition to a totally Democratic controlled Washington may not materialise into either the nightmare of Republicans or the dream of leftists, but whatever unfolds throughout the next two years, you can surely expect Joe Manchin to have a very strong say in it.

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