WASHINGTON — For West Virginia and Sen. Joe Manchin, the time is now.
Every so often the Mountain State snares the national spotlight by way of happenstance or sure will, making its presence known during defining moments in U.S. history.
Since Jan. 5, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has been the hot target for nearly all Capitol reporters. Manchin’s vote on anything, for the entirety of his decade-long Senate career, is not known until it is.
Walking up to the Senate chamber for a vote Tuesday, a crowd of reporters mobbed Manchin long before he could reach the floor. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., trailed him.
Ossoff, his counterpart Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and a team of grassroots organizers in the state worked tirelessly to unseat two incumbent Georgia Republican senators, forcing a runoff on Election Day, then taking the seats Jan. 5. Their victories ensured a deadlocked Senate until 2023.
But Ossoff was the forgotten man in Manchin’s moment. As reporters queried West Virginia’s senior senator, a lone reporter questioned Ossoff.
Georgia’s 15 seconds were over. It is West Virginia’s turn. Again.
In 1960, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, raised Catholic, threw his energies into an all-out effort to win the Democratic primary in 95% Protestant West Virginia. It figured to be a losing battle. Born into wealth, privilege and political power in the northeast, Kennedy came to West Virginia and left changed by the rampant poverty he witnessed in the southern coalfields. The kindness and grit of the state’s people left a lasting mark on the young senator and shaped the president he would become.
His campaign secured the primary win, buying votes with the candidate’s charm, a determined ground team and alleged five-figure cash handouts to county party bosses.
Kennedy knocked his Democratic opponent out of the primary the day after winning West Virginia.
Four decades later, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush broke the Democratic stronghold in West Virginia, pivotal in his 271-266 Electoral College victory. Had Democrat Al Gore captured West Virginia and its five electoral votes it wouldn’t have mattered whether those hanging chads gave him Florida. He would have been president.
From a tiny, struggling state that sometimes looms large, Manchin is the man with the keys. President Joe Biden and other powerful Democrats need West Virginia’s 73-year-old senator to swing the split upper chamber their way. But Manchin votes as he marches, to his own beat.
He describes not a moment of power but one of opportunity. The country is plagued by pain. The number of Americans killed by COVID-19 roughly matches the number killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined. Drastic disparities and divisions are there for all to see, he said. If the 117th Congress does not do its job, this moment in history will be missed, and the country will continue its never-ending nightmare.
“That’s the window. That’s it. Two years. That’s all we got,” he said.
Biden is the right man at the right time to bring the country together, Manchin said. Nonetheless, the senator is the constant thorn in the administration’s side. That, he said, is about bipartisanship, a trait he holds close.
He objects to his fellow Democrats’ strategy of using its majority in both chambers and the presidency to pass priorities through budget reconciliation, which takes only a simple majority.
The path forward should be together, Manchin said, with members of Congress pledging to serve those most ignored. But, he said, that message is not getting through.
“There’s a moment here. I try to explain it to them and you get all this bull — about power and this and that,” he said. “I have watched power destroy people, good people, because they abused it.”
Power does not concern him, Manchin said. But for the next two years he’ll have a great deal of it.
“If you realize the moment that you’re in — can I do some good with this? Can I use it to the best advantage to help people understand what rural America, what Appalachia is like, why West Virginians have felt like they’ve been left behind?”
“If I can use it for that, then, hell yeah I’m going to use it.”
‘Make it happen’
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., darted after Manchin and a small group of reporters outside the Capitol following a floor vote. Booker wanted to know why everyone was so suddenly concerned about West Virginia. Five years ago, Booker was the senator of the hour. His rousing speech in Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention stirred talk of a presidential run.
Now, Booker said of Manchin, “I stand in his shadow. I used to be a star around here.”
A former Stanford University tight end, Booker said he and Manchin, an ex-quarterback, make a great team. Manchin described Booker as one of the greatest friends to be found in the Senate.
Manchin counts a pair of Republican women, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, among his closest allies on Capitol Hill. He said their commitment to bipartisanship rivals his. The three have navigated legislative minefields sticking and working together.
That practice drew the ire of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in the fall when Manchin endorsed Collins over her Democratic opponent. Collins sees Manchin’s name pop up on her caller ID at 7:15 nearly every morning. Manchin’s name is on everyone’s mind at the moment.
“In a 50-50 Senate, there is no more powerful senator than Joe Manchin,” Collins said, “and his role has never been more important than it is right now.”
His buddy-buddy style rankles some of his colleagues. He said many of them run to their corners when the going gets tough.
“You have to work at this. You have to continuously be conscious of — these are human beings, these are real people — and they should be your friends,” Manchin said. “We might disagree, but it doesn’t mean we’re enemies, and if we disagree it’s because I don’t understand your position well enough. So let’s sit down.”
Personal connection and hard work are essential ingredients, Manchin said. That was evident during a late night in the Capitol just before Christmas, when a bipartisan group of eight centrist senators, over a jar of Manchin’s moonshine, hashed out the framework for a compromised COVID-19 relief bill that had been stalled for months.
“You just gotta make it happen,” Manchin said.
What we’ve given
Few places more vividly display America’s problems than does West Virginia.
Resources steadily have been drained and its people have been an afterthought since the state was born out of the Civil War, Manchin said, pledging its allegiance to the Union in June 1863 and breaking off ties to the slave state of Virginia.
Wealthy corporation owners from the northeast flocked to the hills of West Virginia, discovering its vast reserves of natural resources. The story has followed the same script since.
Companies buy rural land here, tap laborers to work dangerous jobs, pay them well for a generation or two and then skip town. The cycle repeated endlessly, until the jobs seemed to leave for good.
Painkillers replaced them. Like much of Appalachia, West Virginia was flooded with millions of highly-addictive pain pills, at first to mitigate chronic health conditions for miners discarded by employers. Later, the pills fueled corporate greed and a drug epidemic still raging in the state with the highest rate of fatal overdoses in the country.
The gilded homes and rich neighborhoods that line wealthy northeastern communities, from which the Kennedy and other families hailed, are products of the wealth and resources built off the backs of West Virginians. These are the sins of the country’s past evident today, Manchin said.
“We never had that wealth in our state.”
Today, the only billionaire in West Virginia is its two-term governor, Jim Justice — a coal company owner and son of a coal company owner.
Manchin said by the time West Virginia started taxing its natural resources — coal, oil, gas, timber, limestone and more — it was too late.
In 1953, progressive Gov. William Casey Marland was the first to try and pass a severance tax on these resources. That drew extreme opposition from coal companies, newspaper editorial boards and politicians bankrolled by the corporations.
Marland’s plan was so soundly defeated it later was dubbed “Governor Marland’s Political Suicide.” Three decades passed before a severance tax was considered again.
In the mid 1940s, more than 115,000 workers were needed to mine coal. By the time Kennedy arrived to campaign in West Virginia in 1960, mining jobs had dropped to 43,000. In 2019, the industry employed fewer than 15,000 people here.
The state remains a harsh reminder of what happens when the country forgets its most vulnerable.
“So how do you make up for the sins of the past?” Manchin said. “You just don’t repeat them.”
What we deserve, and how to get there
How to get immediate relief to struggling Americans has been the most pressing question for Manchin since Jan. 5.
Personal relief checks, unemployment, student debt and rent cancellation and the minimum wage have been common topics floated by Capitol reporters, while emotional pleas for help are heard in West Virginia state and nationwide.
The Rev. William Barber II, co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, an organization that has put shoes to pavement in Charleston, has pressured Manchin in his own backyard to support a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Barber and other national figures have targeted Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., for being holdouts on Biden’s call for the wage hike to be included in the next COVID-19 relief bill. Manchin and Sinema are the most moderate Democrats in the Senate. Both have opposed the wage increase.
In a private meeting Feb. 18 with Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, Manchin reiterated his support for a more moderate wage increase, from the current $7.25 to $11 an hour.
“We’re not interested in compromise,” Barber said afterward. “The $15 is a compromise.”
For an almost entirely rural state, Manchin said, that won’t work. His concerns mirror those cited by others pointing to a report produced by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which found that a phase-in of a $15 minimum wage by 2025 would lift some 900,000 people from poverty but put 1.4 million out of work.
At $11 an hour, a worker would bring in $22,000 a year, just above the federal government’s poverty threshold for a family of three. Manchin favors phasing in that wage starting at the end of next year until 2024. After that, the minimum wage would be indexed, increasing with inflation rather than by legislation.
National debt is another worry of Manchin’s. Every morning an aide texts Manchin how much the national debt has grown since the previous morning. “Thanks,” he replies.
Democrats have accused Republicans over the years of only making the debt an issue in attempts to torpedo Democratic presidencies and priorities. But Manchin is a Democrat, and he’s making it an issue.
Trillions of dollars have flowed into the economy, keeping it in shape to come roaring back when the pandemic is over, Manchin said, but the debt swelled to its highest level since World War II by the time former President Donald Trump left office.
Congress must meet the moment, Manchin said. Members must support major bipartisan infrastructure spending immediately to emerge from the pandemic with opportunities for regional economic development, or these communities will again be left behind.
Spending must be painstakingly targeted to those in need, or communities and the country might never rebound, Manchin said.
He cites the Rural Electrification Act passed by Congress in 1936. Private companies and others objected to spending $112 million amid the Depression on President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal priority to wire America’s most remote areas to an electrical power grid. But the program closed drastic disparities between cities and rural areas and positioned rural America for a 20th century economy.
“They said, ‘My God, only five people live up in this holler. There’s only 10 people over in this area,’” Manchin said.
Broadband warrants FDR-style intervention without which education, employment, health, income and opportunity disparities will widen, Manchin said. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have historically approached the issue wrong way, he said.
The plan? Nonprofit cooperatives, Manchin said, similar to the teams of farmers in rural America that purchased subsidized electrical equipment from private companies, built towers and lines themselves, using local unemployed workers.
Subsidizing and relying on bankrupt private internet companies to connect rural communities is dancing around the problem, he said. Constructing one network tower in West Virginia costs four times more than what it would take in Kansas.
“You can’t force them to go out and lose money unless you’re willing to subsidize. But you can make sure they sell wholesale connectivity into a co-op and let a co-op just go out and cover costs. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and we can do it. There’s ways to do it, damn it, and we just got to be committed,” Manchin said.
Hardy County, in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, has “the most effective and efficient co-op I’ve ever seen” in its local nonprofit internet cooperative, Manchin said. It has allowed online companies to relocate to the tiny towns just a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C. Without the cooperative, these communities would be without internet access.
“It wasn’t profit-motivated. It was people that lived in these rural communities that knew that they had to collect and deliver,” Manchin said. “And if they could do it in the ‘30s, and we can’t do it in the 21st century, shame on us.”
Federal money is not a panacea for what ails West Virginia.
Kennedy vowed never to forget West Virginia. He poured federal money into the state until the day he was assassinated. The federal government invested heavily in areas outside of coal and gas, diversifying the state’s economy with manufacturing, recreation, arts and culture and public works jobs. After Kennedy, longtime former Sen. Robert C. Byrd kept open the faucet of federal funding into the state through his position as a Senate Appropriations chairman.
But the state’s economy never reached the mountaintop. Manchin said it’s been evident throughout the state’s history, that on the rare occasions when piles of federal money are on the table for West Virginia, the money is eaten by the system and rarely makes it to the people.
The senator and others have criticized Justice for sitting on $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief money allocated to the state in April. Justice has spent about half the pot in 10 months. During his campaign for reelection last fall and since, he has used much of the money backfilling the state’s unemployment trust fund in a bid to avoid tax increases or spending cuts.
Some money went to road repairs Justice said would bolster ambulance access, except the roads were not located near hospitals. He also ponied up for relief money for delinquent utility bills from the summer. The program was announced just two weeks before Election Day, allowing the governor to send a letter with his name stretched across the top to nearly 133,000 West Virginia households.
Money intended for broadband went to new school textbooks, upgrades to public safety radio and a resurfaced wilderness trail.
Those who objected, Manchin said, could turn only to Justice, leaving many shouting into the void. Some Democrats labeled him “King Jim.”
“He called a national emergency and he had total control, and [West Virginians] had to come beg him, I need this or I need this or I need this,” Manchin said.
Congress must ensure next time the money gets to the people, Manchin said.
Many rural West Virginia schools are connected to family health clinics, making healthcare more accessible for low-income families. Manchin said for community lifelines like these, which Justice has not supported during the pandemic, there must be more local control.
“You better make sure that school has the ability to attract what resources it needs to provide” services, Manchin said. “Let the school districts pull down what’s needed,” Manchin said.
For the next two years, Manchin said, he will be the “spear catcher.” From the far-left to the far-right and in the middle, Manchin said, he expects the hits to come from every angle, on every subject, every day.
And every spear will be taken in the name of bipartisanship, he said. The Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol changed him, Manchin said. It showed a divided country that needs made whole again.
That Trump could contend let alone win is evidence Democrats should not ram through their priorities, he said.
Liberal detractors say Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not play fair. But Manchin contends former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., blew up the Senate first in 2013 by using the nuclear option to confirm presidential nominations. Reid said it was time for the Senate to evolve beyond parliamentary roadblocks.
“The American people believe the Senate is broken, and I believe the American people are right,” Reid said in 2013.
Manchin said he remains a core believer in the minority representation the Senate body was designed for. He said he’ll protect the legacy of Byrd, the historian who fought to preserve Senate rules and forced the body to work together. Manchin now occupies Byrd’s seat.
An old Byrd rule came in the nick of time for Manchin in the form of the Senate Parliamentarian, a relatively obscure public position, who ruled Thursday that Democrats could not address the minimum wage increase through budget reconciliation.
Manchin’s idea for what could be achieved by this Congress happened early Tuesday morning. Now chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin sat directly across the hearing room from Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who was there for questioning on her nomination for secretary of the Interior.
Haaland, seeking to be the first Native American Cabinet member, would serve in a position directly overseeing the federal government’s energy activity on federal and Indian lands. Haaland, a staunch opponent of drilling and building pipelines on these lands, is the exact official energy corporations fear.
Seated left of Haaland on Tuesday was Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who at 87 is the oldest and longest-serving member of Congress. For decades he’s backed drilling, the oil industry and remains one of the most conservative members.
Young vouched for Haaland, and told senators to confirm her. Haaland was ranked the most bipartisan House freshman in 2019, with 13 of her 27 proposed bills and resolutions having a Republican cosponsor.
Having Young speak so confidently of Haaland’s ability to set aside differences and work together and watching her face hours of tough questioning without wavering, Manchin announced Wednesday night he would vote to confirm Haaland.
“That spoke volumes of who she is,” Manchin said.
There are plenty of opportunities in the next two years for crucial bipartisan legislation to flourish, Manchin said. His firearm background check bill, crafted with Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., failed in 2013 but has become the model for proposed gun safety legislation in the years since.
Manchin supports a reformed immigration system that allows people who have been in the United States illegally and have stayed out of trouble to have a path to citizenship. He backs recruiting professionals from other countries to West Virginia, similar to how the state has historically bolstered its fragile healthcare industry.
“We wouldn’t have all the good doctors we have in our state if it hadn’t been for immigration. We went out and recruited them, and we need to do that [now] also,” he said.
Manchin also supports the path to citizenship for the nearly 670,000 so-called Dreamers — people who were brought into America illegally as children, but were protected from deportation by the Obama-era Dream Act program. The Trump administration was branded immoral for the move to rescind the program, but the Supreme Court held the policy in place in a June 2020 ruling.
“This is the only home they know,” Manchin said.
Whatever the issue over the next two years, a Capitol reporter is going to find Manchin and ask him about it. Whether that is pure coincidence or this is the culmination of Manchin’s decades-long rise from the lower levels of state government to the Senate’s most crucial swing vote — well, none of that really matters now.
What matters is rebuilding a battered country and a struggling state, Manchin said. For that to happen, some of his 534 colleagues in the Capitol are going to have to join forces with him.
“If you can’t change your mind,” he said, “you can’t change anything.”