When Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their Senate run-offs, they gave Democrats a slim majority and—as a necessary side effect—made West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin the most powerful member of their caucus. Manchin, who politically is basically a Republican, now has the power to make or break votes along party lines.
Machin appears to be relishing his first opportunity to inflict serious damage on his fellow Democrats’ agenda, blocking the confirmation of a Biden cabinet pick and throwing a wrench in minimum wage negotiations.
Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for head of Office of Management and Budget, appears to be shy of getting confirmed thanks in part to Manchin, who—along with Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Rob Portman—has said he will vote no.
Manchin has also begun to hint that he might also oppose Rep. Deb Haaland’s nomination to the Department of the Interior, an appointment seen as a victory for progressives hoping the Biden administration would seriously consider their interests. As of Monday night, Manchin’s spokesperson said the senator is undecided about his vote, and that he has “remaining questions” for Haaland before making a decision. (It bears noting that Manchin is largely backed by the oil and gas industry; as Interior secretary, Haaland would oversee 500 million acres of public land.)
At the moment, Haaland doesn’t seem to face as much as an uphill battle as Tanden, and she may win the votes of some of the Republicans who opposed Tanden. Nevertheless it’s annoying that Manchin has the power to transform what might otherwise be a relatively smooth confirmation process into an “embattled” one, as the New York Times has termed it.
And that’s not all. Democrats had planned to push through a $15 minimum wage increase included in the covid relief package by using budget reconciliation—a political tool that allows them to pass the measure without Republican support.
But the plan relies on Democrats voting together as a caucus, and Manchin is one of two Democratic senators who plans to defect. “There are two issues going on right now ... one is whip problems,” House Budget Chair John Yarmuth told Politico on Monday. “If Joe Manchin isn’t going to vote for it because of the minimum wage, I assume we have to take it out or compromise in a way that he would accept.”
Instead, Manchin is proposing a paltry $11 minimum wage, which he said is “the right place to be.”
In a larger sense, this problem is about Democrats’ seeming inability to govern, even when they finally hold the majority. Another obstacle to a $15 minimum wage, for example, is that Democrats are waiting to hear from the Senate parliamentarian about an arcane rule that could block them from including the wage increase in the budget reconciliation, even though more progressive members like Bernie Sanders believe there is plenty of evidence that it’s above code. (Not to mention that Senate Democrats could override the parliamentarian’s decision anyway.)
But in another much more obvious sense, the problem here is Joe Manchin, who loves being the problem. At least for the next few years, it’s seems like he’ll get his wish.