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7 January 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:00am

Why Democratic centrist Joe Manchin could now be the most powerful US senator

The senator for West Virginia aligns with the Republicans on many issues. In a split upper chamber, he could frustrate the left’s ambitions.  

By Harry Lambert

The Democrats have delivered a two-month-long electoral triumph. After appearing to be on the verge of losing both the presidency and the Senate in the initial hours of the election results being announced on 3 November, the party’s fortunes began to shift as the night progressed, moving decisively at around 3am. Since then, the party’s good fortune has not let up. In a fortnight, when Joe Biden is inaugurated on 20 January, Democrats will – narrowly in both cases – control both houses of Congress as well as the presidency.

Democrats have only reached this point in the Senate through a succession of small and precious victories over the last four years. Most evidently, in November, they very nearly lost one of the two Georgia seats they won this week. David Perdue, the Republican senator who defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, came within 0.3 per cent – 13,400 votes – from winning 50 per cent of the vote on 3 November and avoiding a run-off against Ossoff. As with Donald Trump, at first on election night it appeared Perdue could prevail.

But the Democrats also won crucial Senate seats in quieter victories during the late 2010s. The Senate is elected in three cycles every two years: the Democrats’ 50 seats were won across 2016, 2018 and 2020, as senators serve six-year terms. In 2016 in New Hampshire, Democrat Maggie Hassan beat the Republican candidate Kelly Ayotte by 1,017 votes (with Democrats also holding on to a closely fought seat in Nevada). In 2018 Democrats then lost four of their seats but won two Republican seats, in Arizona and again in Nevada (each state elects two senators), while also holding on to two critical “red state” seats in Montana and West Virginia.

And in this year’s cycle the party picked up Republican seats, one in Colorado and one again in Arizona, along with this week’s two victories in Georgia. These key victories since 2016 have all added up over the years to give the Democrats their ultra-slim majority (with both parties now holding 50 seats each in the 100-seat chamber, vice-president Kamala Harris holds the casting vote). 

[see also: The storming of the US Capitol by a mob is the logical end to Donald Trump’s presidency​]

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Emily has more on the meaning of the 50:50 split, but perhaps the most crucial storyline is the power of the 50th Democratic senator. For the Biden administration to pass any bills, it must retain the vote of all 50 Democrat senators. The most rebellious Democrat senator is therefore arguably the most powerful figure in the chamber: if they do not want to vote for a measure, it will not pass. (No Republican, whether the mildly independently minded Lisa Murkowski in Alaska or the soon-to-retire Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, is likely to vote to the left of any Democrat.)

That 50th senator is most likely to be Joe Manchin, the Democrat who won in the deep red state of West Virginia in 2018. West Virginia, once a Democratic stronghold, is now a Republican bastion. In November, only Wyoming voted for Trump by a greater margin. Manchin, a former governor of the state, will soon be the only Democrat to hold state-wide office there.

Manchin is a far cry from the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party, both temperamentally and politically. As he recently quipped in an interview: “Where I come from, if I come to work every day and you try to get me fired, we’re going to talk in the parking lot after work, that’s where I come from.” In one campaign ad, he carried a rifle into the woods and fired shots into Barack Obama’s cap and trade bill. He won election promising West Virginians he’d “get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets”, while protecting the right to bear arms.

It is Manchin, rather than, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will most shape the legislative policy of the Biden administration. (Biden will, as with Barack Obama and Trump, also make policy through executive order, but that process is invariably short lived: executive orders can always be overturned by presidential successors, as many of Trump’s orders will be by Biden on inauguration.)

Manchin confirmed many of Trump’s cabinet appointees, as well as his Supreme Court justices, including Brett Kavanaugh. Some of his positions align with the outgoing president. He has long been against major foreign troop deployments, such as the Afghanistan war; as he put it in 2011, “We can no longer afford to rebuild Afghanistan and America. We must choose. And I choose America.” He also backed Trump’s hawkish approach to trade with China. 

He supported the US president’s border wall with Mexico, and last year backed the re-election campaign of Susan Collins, the recently re-elected Republican senator for Maine and a close legislative ally. Ousting Collins was a major Democratic aim in 2020. He opposes same-sex marriage.

Manchin is, as he himself says, an American “centrist”. His views align much more closely with the Democratic Party of the 20th century than with its millennial variant. Radical ideas on the left, from granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, DC to packing the Supreme Court or ending the Senate filibuster – a way of blocking legislation – will all come up against an obstacle at the door of Joe Manchin’s Senate office. As Manchin himself said in a recent interview: “We do not have some crazy socialist agenda, and we do not believe in defunding the police.”

As Sean Trende, a long-standing US journalist for RealClearPolitics, put it yesterday: “A lot of the apocalyptic/joyous rhetoric on both sides of Georgia is likely going to run into the reality of Joe Manchin sometime in early Feb.”

[see also: US Congress certifies Joe Biden’s presidential victory in wake of Capitol storming​]

Manchin will ensure Biden can appoint his own cabinet and place judges on the nation’s courts. He is also likely to back Biden’s spending plans (which can be passed under 50-vote “reconciliation bills”). But Manchin is adamant that he will not vote to end the Senate filibuster on basic legislation. The filibuster rule allows a minority bloc of 41 senators to prevent legislation from passing; the majority party needs 60 votes to end “cloture” and move legislation forward. The Democrats alone have only 50 votes, which will prevent much of the major structural change to US politics sought by the left, and any progress on long-pressing issues such as background checks for gun owners.

In 2013 Manchin himself led the Senate legislation on background checks after the Sandy Hook shooting, but the legislation, despite winning 54 votes, fell short of the 60 required to be passed into law. Nevertheless, Manchin believes losing the filibuster will reduce the Senate to little more than a “glorified House”. So long as he does, there is likely to be a hard cap on Biden’s ability to reshape the US.

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