Inside a parking garage in Washington, DC, a group of climate protesters encircled a luxury vehicle. “We want to live!” they chanted. The date was 4 November; the driver of the vehicle was Joe Manchin III, Democratic senator for West Virginia and a resolute opponent of the climate measures President Joe Biden has been trying to get through Congress.
The following day Biden’s $1trn infrastructure bill was passed, hailed as a monumental achievement for the president, but the legislation is without significant climate measures. A more ambitious social spending bill, which now contains the bulk of the climate provisions, is stalled in Congress. With a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, every Democratic vote counts – Manchin’s especially.
Since the Democrats retook the White House after last year’s election, he has regularly voted against his own party, holding up bills and thwarting progressive legislation. Manchin has fought particularly hard against climate action.
If the social spending bill is finally passed, it will not include the $150bn Clean Electricity Performance Programme, which would have rewarded utility companies for ditching fossil fuels and penalised those that didn’t. Experts said the programme would have dramatically reduced US greenhouse gas emission. But thanks to one Democratic senator, the programme is dead.
Born in 1947, Manchin grew up in the West Virginia mining town of Farmington. His career has been spent either in the relatively poor Appalachian state, or representing it in Washington, DC. After working for the family carpet business, Manchin set up a coal brokerage firm, Enersystems, entering politics in the 1980s. He spent four years as West Virginia secretary of state and was responsible for overseeing elections, before running for governor in 2004. He held that position until 2010, when he ran for – and won – one of West Virginia’s two seats in the US Senate. Now a millionaire who loves to entertain fellow politicians on his yacht, named Almost Heaven, Manchin is often described as a centrist politician in an increasingly polarised country.
He has also created a lot of headaches for his party. The climate provisions aren’t the only progressive legislation Manchin has blocked since Biden took office. In March, he was the lone Democrat to insist on reducing the size of Covid-relief unemployment payments provided to Americans. In April, he refused to support raising the corporate tax rate to 28 per cent. Yet the issue of climate action is unique in that Manchin’s ability to halt progress wouldn’t just affect the US; it could have consequences for the rest of the world.
While Manchin has claimed he’s concerned about the economic implications of Biden’s measures, his own fortunes, financial and political, are also at stake. West Virginia is coal country: voting against the industry would be political suicide. Manchin has received more in political donations from both the oil and gas industry and the coal industry than any other senator in the current election cycle. What’s more, his personal finances are also bolstered by the coal industry. Though he handed the reins of his coal brokerage firm to his son, he still owns shares in the company and has made millions in dividend income.
Despite Manchin’s opposition, experts say there is still hope that the US will be able to pass significant climate legislation. The social spending bill has managed to incorporate some, though not all, of the climate measures dropped from the infrastructure bill. More importantly, centrists including Manchin have hinted that they are willing to support the bill in theory.
“The prospects for real action are still good,” said David G Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, though he acknowledges that the new measures don’t include penalties for utility companies that refuse to move away from fossil fuels (“it’s a big dump truck full of carrots” without any sticks, he said).
Robbie Orvis, senior director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation, a think tank based in Washington, DC, agrees. “I’m the most optimistic I’ve been on federal policy in my career.”
Yet firm commitments are still lacking, and Manchin’s power remains undimmed. The social spending bill is expected to be voted on in the House in the coming weeks before it goes to the Senate. There, as Orvis put it, “at least 49 people are willing to pass it and the 50th one, well, has made some changes, but otherwise seems to be supportive”.
For now, we can only wait to see what Manchin will do. Until then, expect more protests.
[see also: Joe Biden and the spectre of Donald Trump]