The West Virginia senator came with plenty of rationalizations. He expressed concern about inflation and the national debt. (“Do we have the urgency to spend another $3.5 trillion right now?” he asked on CNN.) He rejected the idea that the bill needed to be moved in tandem with the bipartisan infrastructure deal he helped broker. “We don’t have the need to rush into this and get it done within one week because there’s some deadline we’re meeting,” he said on NBC of the reconciliation bill. By contrast, he told CNN, “the president went out and campaigned on [the infrastructure deal]. That’s his bill.”
But these arguments apply equally to the infrastructure deal and the budget reconciliation bill. Any concerns about the debt or inflation should surely also apply to the $1 trillion for infrastructure, and there’s no deadline that necessitates rushing it, either. President Biden has campaigned for both bills.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on ABC, “Physical infrastructure is terribly important. But I happen to think that the needs of the human beings of our country, working families, the children, the elderly, the poor are even more important, and we can and must do both.” That’s why, though Manchin claims otherwise, the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress have consistently stated that the two bills are linked.
So what, then, really distinguishes the two bills for Manchin? The answer seems to lie in an answer he gave on ABC, when asked whether neither bill may end up passing. “If you don’t need bridges fixed or roads fixed in your state, I do in West Virginia,” he replied. “I need Internet in West Virginia. I got water and sewage problems. I have got all the problems that we have addressed in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.”
I, I, I. This isn’t unusual phrasing for Manchin. In a recent New Yorker profile, he described his concerns about West Virginia’s economy as “I can’t lose one job. I don’t have one to spare,” as though his Senate office is the state’s employment center. The decisive factor for Manchin isn’t the debt, the pandemic or the inflation rate. It’s that one bill has what he wants, and the other doesn’t.
This “me first” selfishness has served Manchin well for many years, and not just as a blue politician surviving in a red state. A new report from Type Investigations and the Intercept on the coal companies that made his fortune found that “for decades,” Manchin’s coal firms “have relied on mines and refuse piles cited for dozens of Mine Safety and Health Agency violations, multiple deaths, and wastewater discharging that has poisoned tributaries feeding into the Monongahela River, as hundreds of thousands of tons of carcinogenic coal ash are dumped across Marion County.”
While Manchin doesn’t own the mines and power plants polluting the state, his businesses have benefited handsomely from them. Since he joined the Senate 10 years ago, the investigation found, he has “grossed more than $4.5 million” from his firms, according to financial disclosures. As the article notes, Manchin has said his ownership interest is held in a blind trust.
No doubt Manchin would bristle at the suggestion that his opposition to the reconciliation bill and its climate provisions would have anything to do with their impact on his personal wealth. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, though, the theme remains the same: Manchin gets his, while everyone else can fend for themselves.
Luckily, Manchin hasn’t gotten what he wants yet — and that gives the White House and the left leverage. Manchin is famously prickly about pressure campaigns, but his desire for the bipartisan infrastructure bill is palpable. Democrats shouldn’t be shy about threatening to tank both bills if one won’t pass.
Similar dynamics have already played out in the House. As the Intercept’s Ryan Grim has reported, for example, progressives on the House Education Committee shut down moderates’ attempts to water down a robust child-care benefit by refusing to vote for a more modest benefit. Sticking to the two-track path is the best chance to ensure that not only does Manchin gets his, but also all Americans get theirs.