Politics

How Joe Manchin Brought the Senate to a Screeching Halt

West Virginia centrist demands Democrats rewrite their deal, for no clear reason.

Senator Joe Manchin in Washington, DC on February 24, 2021.
Senator Joe Manchin in Washington, DC on February 24, 2021. SARAH SILBIGER/Getty Images

The first of many, many votes expected during the Senate’s consideration of Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill began around 11 a.m. Friday, with a vote on the minimum wage. As of 9:11 p.m. Friday night, here’s how many votes the Senate had completed: Zero. The minimum wage vote was still open, and had become the longest known vote in Senate history.

Democrats were stalling to work out a big, predictable problem known as Joe Manchin.

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Democrats had been attempting all week to work out internal disagreements on the bill before it came to the floor. They reached a deal on (odd) new limits for direct payments. And on Friday morning, they announced they had reached a deal on enhanced unemployment benefits, trimming the weekly amount from $400 to $300, but extending the duration to October and saving people from surprise tax bills come April.

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The problem with the Friday morning deal, met with great fanfare upon its announcement by the White House and committee chairmen and Democratic leaders, was that Joe Manchin had not agreed to it.

This became evident sometime during the minimum wage vote, as Democrats—even fellow centrist Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema—were pleading with Manchin on the Senate floor. The issue was the dueling set of amendments scheduled to come up next: There was the unemployment insurance deal Democrats had crafted, which Delaware Sen. Tom Carper would be offering as an amendment, and then an amendment from Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman which would cut unemployment benefits and have them expire in July.

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Manchin liked the Republican amendment better. Oops!

It set off a frenzy. Republicans worked to make sure they had all 50 of their votes in line for Portman’s amendment so that they could pass it if Manchin joined them. Democrats tried to wear down Manchin, who was threatening to unravel painstaking negotiations that 49 out of 50 Democrats were ready to accept. Progressive senators, who’d already agreed to cuts elsewhere, might revolt if unemployment benefits were trimmed in both amount and duration. And their revolt would be nothing compared to the apoplexy into which it would send House Democrats, who will need to vote on the bill again.

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As this was happening, Republicans were genuinely enjoying themselves for what felt like the first time in years. On Friday morning, the story was that Republicans, led by a cartoonish Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, had wasted everyone’s time by forcing a useless reading of the bill on the floor. By Friday afternoon, Democrats were the cause of the delay as they couldn’t get past their very first amendment. Did they not know how to count votes?

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“I just think that the Democrats right now are in a bit of a quandary,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune said. “I mean, they’ve essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade, I think, all their members to stay together on some of these votes. And I think they’re afraid that they that they could lose on Portman.”

“I feel bad for Joe Manchin,” he added. “I hope the hope the Geneva Convention applies to him.”

And then there were the lectures about how Democrats were getting their comeuppance for trying to pass relief on their own, instead of working with Republicans.

“I think it says it was a big mistake to try to do this on a partisan basis,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said. “There was clearly a deal to be had on a bipartisan basis, with the 10 Republicans who went over to the White House with a $600 billion bill. But they decided to plow through, and I think that’s what they miscalculated.”

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Around 8:10 p.m., after a final meeting between Manchin and Chuck Schumer, a deal (“accepted by Joe Manchin,” as a Democratic aide was sure to note) was announced. It would basically do everything that the “deal” reached earlier among Democrats would do, except the enhanced unemployment benefits would expire at the beginning of September instead of the beginning of October, and an income cap would be placed on those for whom unemployment benefits would be non-taxable.

Joe Manchin could have used his leverage to give West Virginia anything it wanted. Instead, after he forced a tense showdown, his big wins will be ensuring that some people who got checks under Trump will not get them under Biden and chopping off a month of benefits for the unemployed.

For all of these last-minute adjustments, and Republicans crowing about how Democrats had made a grave miscalculation in going on their own, Democrats are still poised to pass a rare popular bill that will shower money on people. Which makes it bizarre that one Democrat is so insistent on poking around the edges to see where he can put a damper.

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