The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington’s hottest club is Joe Manchin’s houseboat

Earlier this year, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), right, slipped while disembarking Almost Heaven, a boat owned by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), middle. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Generally speaking, the first rule of visiting Joe Manchin III’s houseboat is don’t talk about Joe Manchin’s houseboat.

Last week, however, when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a weekend cruise on Almost Heaven — named after the opening line of John Denver’s elegy to West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — it’s all anyone in Washington wanted to discuss.

News releases began pouring out from the offices of Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) admitting that the senators had been onboard but emphasizing that they’d followed public-health guidelines about testing and masking. Rumors spread throughout Capitol Hill that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a regular on the boat, had been spotted wearing a mask outside of the Senate physician’s office (his office later said he tested negative). Some lawmakers made efforts to tamp down any sense of scandal or indulgence.

“It was a cookout,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said walking through the Capitol basement on the way to votes Tuesday. “We literally had hot dogs and hamburgers at, like, 4 in the afternoon on top of a boat that was moving with a stiff breeze.”

“There’s no ‘parties,’ ” Manchin himself said of the semi-mysterious doings onboard his precious vessel. “Basically, there’s gatherings we have on Almost Heaven. We know each other and talk to each other.” The U.S. senator from West Virginia was sporting a bandage on his forehead while talking to reporters, an injury he says he sustained fixing a sink, not partying, on the boat.

So far, nobody beyond Graham has reported a positive test. But the notion that Almost Heaven might become the Diamond Princess of the Potomac put a spotlight on what has become a crucial destination for members of Official Washington.

At the ideological center of a 50-50 Senate, Manchin, a Democrat, has found himself in the captain’s seat for much of what gets done, or doesn’t get done, in Washington. This means that the Room Where it Happens is often a large pleasure craft/domicile floating on the capital waterways. At least three Biden Cabinet secretaries have spent time on Almost Heaven, as have the White House chief of staff and dozens of senators.

“The core group that worked on this infrastructure bill has been socializing on the boat together for a long time,” said Coons. “The bill probably would have fallen apart, after there were some strong crosscurrents, if not for the trust and relationships that were built, including during time on the boat.”

Climb aboard the Almost Heaven, which is somewhere between a trawler and a yacht, big and boxy. Step inside the cabin and marvel at the creature comforts: a semicircular, plush-leather couch with a matching ottoman, glass cabinets trimmed with dark wood, a marble dining-room table with thick white candles and a box of blue-and-white cocktail napkins with red cursive lettering: "Welcome aboard Almost Heaven." Below deck, the master bedroom is cozy but well-appointed, with an abundance of throw pillows. There's a guest room with a bed above the washer/dryer.

Up on the party deck, amid the wrought-iron chairs and tables with umbrellas, you might see Trump-allied Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), just months removed from objecting to President Biden’s election, talking college football with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“Pete’s from Notre Dame,” said Tuberville, a former college football coach, recalling a visit to Almost Heaven. “So we talked about the ‘Catholics versus Convicts’ game I coached in 1988, when Notre Dame went on to win its last national championship. I was coaching in Miami. We went for two at the end of the game. Didn’t make it.”

And hey, look at that view! On one evening cruise, some years back, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was so moved by the picturesque Washington skyline that she began singing “God Bless America.”

And see this chair here? Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is said to have once rested his foot atop this seat, standing in the Captain Morgan pose, polishing off three beers in a matter of minutes while talking to one of his most liberal colleagues, then-Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “He was drinking those beers like water,” said former senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who watched the conversation in awe.

This is the promise of Almost Heaven: Anyone who scores an invite can loosen up for a few hours in a Washington precinct with no candid cameras or nagging aides or nosy reporters, and maybe get to see their colleagues as real people. It’s a place for Hawaiian shirts and shorts (Manchin’s go-to boat attire) instead of suits and ties, where senators dine on pizza from Harris Teeter or pasta platters from Nostra Cocina. Moonshine is available for drinking, and if the gatherings go late you can be sure there will be dancing and singing — and not just patriotic hymns from the likes of Murkowski. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), an Almost Heaven regular, has regaled fellow passengers with “American Pie.” Manchin, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has been known to crank the music and sing along to “SOB,” by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whose chorus begins: “Son of a b----, give me a drink!”

Stay late enough and you might even catch Manchin cheerfully cleaning up after everyone. “He’s a neat-freak,” said a guest who has been on the boat many times. “You could eat off that floor.”

“He’s really in his element there,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said of the gentleman from West Virginia. “It’s a great place to sit on the deck, have a beer, gossip and laugh and forget about the challenges of work and occasionally thereby get some work done.”

There are fewer and fewer bipartisan safe spaces like that in Washington, in Kaine’s estimation.

“It’s the weekly prayer breakfast, the gym and, I guess, Joe’s boat,” he said.

Guests are encouraged to keep private any scuttlebutt re: the boat, and that doesn’t just go for members of Congress. Over the years Manchin has invited many journalists aboard (present company excluded) under the condition that everything stay off the record.

“I organized some of the first press gatherings on the boat, and I made everybody swear on penalty of being cast into the abyss that they wouldn’t talk about it, since it was his home,” said Steve Clemons, a journalist and friend of Manchin.

There have been numerous failed attempts at writing about the boat over the years, attempts met with resistance from Manchin’s staff — for a mix of political and security concerns — and colleagues who knew to clam up.

“That’s a nice try,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told a Washington Post reporter attempting to write a story about Almost Heaven in 2018. “But you’re talking to the chairman of the Intelligence Committee — I’m not talking about the boat!”

First Rule of Boat Club notwithstanding, there have been leaks. In June, as part of a longer Manchin profile, the New Yorker relayed an anecdote from February about Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) nearly plunging into frigid water after slipping on an icy gangplank following a dinner aboard Almost Heaven with Manchin and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Manchin reportedly had lunged to his colleague’s aid and came away with an injured thumb. Asked by The Post to elaborate on that spill, Tester offered: “The shoes were warm and the ice was thick.”

Some of the more high-profile guests have seen their visits noted in the political press. Energy Secretary Jennifer Gran­holm was spotted there by Politico Playbook. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met there for chats about the infrastructure bill, according to a Wall Street Journal reporter. The New York Times reported that Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, spent an evening “getting to know” Manchin earlier this year.

That meeting was set up by Clemons — who, while hesitant at first to talk to The Post about Almost Heaven, agreed to an interview after “The Manchin clan” had removed his “covenant with them on the boat.”

“They had a three-hour dinner, a fantastic dinner according to both accounts,” Clemons said of the Klain conclave. “And I think it was useful in bridging the senator and the White House. All I know is that a couple of days later the American Recovery Act got through.”

In 2011, Terry Sullivan was living aboard his 50-foot Sea Ray Powerboat, when his friend, the dockmaster, told him a new neighbor was moving into the slip next door.

“He said he was some sort of congressman or something,” Sullivan recalled recently.

At the time Sullivan was deputy chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and he was inclined to “leave all that political stuff” at the office.

“I was like, ‘Aww man, don’t put him next to me, please.’ ”

Sullivan changed his mind when Manchin and his buddies rolled up in the Black Tie, Manchin’s vessel before Almost Heaven, wearing T-shirts and drinking beers.

The new neighbors had multiple conversations before Manchin finally asked Sullivan what he did for a living — an uncommon feat in Washington. The senator seemed as if he’d fit in just fine at a marina where people would rather talk boats than business.

“There was a time he called me while I was in the office,” Sullivan said. It wasn’t a political favor he was after. “He wanted to know if he could get on my boat to borrow a socket set.”

Sullivan said he believes this is why Manchin brings people out on the water with him: to help wash away some of the toxicity of Congress.

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When the National Republican Senatorial Committee heard that Sullivan lived next to Manchin, the Republican operative says, they asked if he might have any intel to share.

“I said: ‘Go to hell,’ ” he said. “First of all, I like the guy, and second of all, he’s my neighbor. On boats, you just wouldn’t do that.”

Among the landlubbers, all’s fair: In 2018, with Manchin facing a tough reelection bid, the NRSC ran ads knocking the Democrat for living on a $700,000 “luxury yacht.” (Manchin’s office has pointed to documents showing that he paid only $220,000 for Almost Heaven when he bought it, in 2014.) Manchin, meanwhile, has tried to make the boat work as a political prop in his favor, bragging about how he’s always just one anchor-pull away from fleeing Washington.

Manchin is now at a strange time in his relationship with the city. His colleagues like him, and admire him for getting people to like each other — or, at least, to try. But with Republicans going all-in on an ex-president who tried to overturn an election on false pretenses, and many Democrats increasingly fed up with compromise-minded moderates, American politics is no boat party. For those watching the news with rising alarm, there’s no comfort in the thought of Manchin taking calls from President Donald Trump aboard Almost Heaven (which he has done, according to Clemons), or Buttigieg and Tuberville bonding over college football on the roof deck, or Murkowski being moved to song by the sight of the capital skyline.

“All I’m saying is I don’t think our Founding Fathers anticipated the survival of this democratic experiment to rest in the hands of a man who lives in a house boat,” Jenna Valle-Riestra, a press secretary for the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in a now-deleted tweet, after Manchin came out against a Democratic voting rights bill.

Not that this kind of criticism is keeping Manchin up at night.

“After January 6, he told me, ‘If we aren’t out there forcing people to come together to defend a safe space in the middle, then we will never have it,’ ” said Clemons. “People attack him for being naive. They think that criticism or pressure is somehow going to move him, but it actually makes him double down.”

There is much promise and peril, then, for Manchin and his boat. It’s a place where deals can be floated and bills can get watered down. Where trust can live, if fleetingly, among people whose constituents don’t trust each other at all.

It is, in other words, Washington in miniature. For some that sounds like Almost Heaven. For others that’s just a nice way to describe living in limbo.

Ashley Parker, Mary Jordan and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.