Manchin Finds Way to the Center

Posted October 30, 2013 at 3:57pm

To understand Joe Manchin III is to know that if he could have his way, he never would have left the West Virginia governor’s mansion.

The Mountain State Democrat is almost compulsive in his desire to inject himself into the middle of fights that leadership often would prefer he sat out — with one Senate Democratic aide referring to him as a perpetual “bull in the china shop.” Manchin says it’s because of his inclination to fix problems and make Washington work, but it also seems the former governor is trying to fill the void left by no longer being an executive, which he still feels like a phantom limb.

“[You] can’t make me miss [being a governor] any more. You can’t ever be any more missing of something than I am,” Manchin said in an interview with Roll Call before a Tuesday night meeting with the newly formed Senate governors caucus.

Manchin walked away from the governorship with two years left in his term after the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd in 2010 and, even while campaigning, seriously discussed dropping out. He said he “always had [a] reservation” about running for Senate.

“I should have done it,” Manchin said about finishing his term as governor. “Looking back on it, when I look at it, I left the best job in the world voluntarily two years early, and I want to kick myself ever since I’ve done that.”

But two senatorial elections and three years later, Manchin is firmly situated in the hyperpartisan, broken Washington he decries so often, and on issue after issue he has found his way to the center of debate, even if it’s sometimes at the political peril of his Democratic colleagues.

On gun control, student loans, a toxic chemical bill, Syria and delaying the individual mandate, Manchin has sought out Republican partners — and has often been sought out by them — to pave a middle road. Of those specific efforts, only his work on student loans has facilitated an actual law. But his political instincts have been sharp, especially when he moved to focus the gun debate on background checks, even though the effort ultimately failed to pass the Senate and he had to face blowback at home.

Manchin’s freelancing has created varying degrees of headaches for Democratic leaders and the White House, although he often provides Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., with the needed procedural votes when it counts — including sticking with him during the government shutdown fight.

It’s clear Republicans are more comfortable dealing with Manchin — who calls almost everyone “buddy” and hosts alcohol-infused gatherings for senators on his boat — than with perhaps any other Democrat. In April, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., would stand next to Manchin to discuss a background checks deal but did not want Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., onstage.

Aides familiar with the thinking of Democratic leadership say leaders believe Manchin’s intent is usually pure, even though they get frustrated when his instinct to reach across the aisle undercuts the party’s agenda.

But Schumer, Manchin’s closest ally in leadership, had nothing but praise for the West Virginian.

“He’s very talented. He’s very good at bringing people together and seeing things in different ways than other people see it,” Schumer told CQ Roll Call. “We know he’s from a tough state, so both we admire what he’s done but we cut him a little slack.”

Manchin said that he doesn’t ever need the backing of the party or leadership to act on an issue, only the “blessings of … God almighty and the West Virginia people.”

Last week, he floated legislation with Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia to delay the individual mandate penalty by a year — effectively suspending the enforcement mechanism at the heart of the law and placing in-cycle Democrats in the potentially tenuous position of having to go on record on whether to undercut a law they voted for and Manchin didn’t.

On Tuesday, Manchin spoke from the Capitol’s West Front to a rally of thousands of coal supporters — including many hoisting “Save America, Impeach Obama” placards.

On Wednesday, Manchin became the last Senate Democrat to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Manchin skipped 2010’s vote on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for a Christmas party while releasing an equivocating statement saying he could not support a repeal at the time but might be able to in the “near future.”

“Well, he does things like that,” said West Virginia’s senior senator, Jay Rockefeller, of Manchin’s address to the coal rally. “If they were having a rally for clean coal, I would have been there. But they’re having [a rally] for coal the way they do it now. I can’t go there.”

On the health care issue, Rockefeller seemed equally dismissive of the bill to delay the mandate: “I don’t agree with that approach.”

“I didn’t co-sponsor it, and I do think that this thing can work, and every day you delay in not getting money from younger enrollees, you’re preventing the main body of the bill from working,” said Rockefeller, who is retiring next year.

Of those from moderate states such as West Virginia who are still running for office and mulling changes to the health care law, Rockefeller said, “They’re probably up in 2014 and feeling nervous. It’s amazing what that does to people.”

Manchin, though, would argue that the political middle ground is where the majority of work gets done and that he’s not afraid to do it. Asked whether it’s typically Republicans who approach him, Manchin said that while it depends on the issue, he typically finds GOP partners more.

“Republicans do come [to me] quite a bit. They’re looking for somebody that usually looks for the middle, those who have a reasonable request and think it might get bogged down because of the politics here. I appreciate that. I appreciate they [see] me as being a centrist. They look at the issue and not the politics,” Manchin said. “A lot of Democrats have the same concerns and goals. I’m just looking to find the balance. The balance isn’t easy to find anymore.”