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A Look At Joe Manchin's Approach To Politics

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to take a look at a key figure in the ongoing negotiations between the White House and Senate Republicans over President Biden's infrastructure plan, one of his top priorities. Just to recap where things stand, Senate Republicans have objected to the scope, the cost and tax increases to pay for the Biden plan. But the White House rejected their latest offer, which is about $700 billion less, for falling short of the president's objectives. And this all comes as Democrats, who nominally control both chambers in Congress and the White House, are getting restless and pushing to pass legislation on their own. A new meeting between the two sides is scheduled for Monday.

At stake in all this isn't just the dollar amounts but also the idea of whether these kinds of bipartisan negotiations are still a viable way to do business in today's Washington. And this is where Senator Joe Manchin comes in. He is the only Democrat elected statewide in West Virginia, and he's repeatedly insisted that he is not interested in passing a partisan infrastructure bill. Manchin has also refused to support calls to eliminate the filibuster, which Senate Republicans could use to stall the legislation.

We wanted to know more about Senator Manchin and his approach to politics, so we called Joe Severino. He is a reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, and he's recently written about Senator Manchin. And he is with us now.

Joe Severino, thanks so much for joining us.

JOE SEVERINO: Absolutely. Thank you.

MARTIN: So what would you say is motivating Senator Manchin's stance on bipartisanship? As I think most people have seen, it's of less and less interest to both sides in Washington right now. So why do you think he's so insistent about it?

SEVERINO: He is a true believer in bipartisanship, and bipartisanship to him is working together. That comes from just being a Democrat in West Virginia. This was a blue state, you know, for 80 years up until 2000. And, you know, there was a lot of factions of them, and they had to work together. But he's in a vastly different position now. He's in the United States Senate. He's not in the West Virginia state government anymore. People look at Senator Manchin and his push for bipartisanship and can be frustrated because I think if you've looked - if you watched, you know, over the last four years, you know, there hasn't been a lot of that.

So I think that's - the question, you know, most people have for Senator Manchin is - why do you think we can - this country can come together now after all it's been through? And that's what he's banking on. I mean, he really - in Senator Manchin's approach, we have to come together.

MARTIN: I want to mention a couple other things. He's emerged as a swing vote that could halt Democratic progress on issues like infrastructure, on voting rights reform, on climate change. He's called for another Senate vote on forming a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, even though Republicans blocked that commission. So I would imagine that because West Virginia - you know, the former President Trump was very popular in West Virginia, I'm sure, you know, constituents agree on some of those things? But I'm sure they don't agree on others. So if people support the infrastructure bill, do you have a sense of what the voters think he should do about this?

SEVERINO: For the infrastructure bill, I think it's one of these bills West Virginians aren't too entuned to. I'll say that. But we've been through plenty of, you know, years recently where there's been no infrastructure bills and especially in a place like West Virginia, where we have some of the most crumbling infrastructure in the country. But if you're looking at, you know, why these two sides are far apart, some of those things that President Biden wants in there, I'm not sure if West Virginians would support that.

MARTIN: Is there any leverage that Democrats have over him in the state? As you've seen in other parts of the country, that when progressives don't feel the Democrats have done enough to advance their objectives, they run people against them in the primary. But as we've said, Democrats have not been successful in statewide races in West Virginia, except for him in recent years. So do - is there any leverage to kind of persuade Senator Manchin in the state, in your view?

SEVERINO: Not from the liberal wing of the state. He had a liberal challenger in the 2018 Senate race. And she made - she took a pretty good chunk out of Joe's vote. And I think that was really the first time that West Virginia really proved that they've had this, you know, really progressive part of the state. Again, you know, she got a pretty significant part of the vote, but he barely won his race against an unpopular carpetbagger attorney general, you know? I don't think, you know, there's any room for, you know, the liberals to sway Senator Manchin on some of this stuff. I personally, you know, don't think Senator Manchin will run for reelection again. He'll be up in 2024. I know he's never hit a...

MARTIN: You don't think he'll run again?

SEVERINO: Yeah. I mean, he's not a big fan of Washington, D.C., at all. I mean, he said that the governorship is the best job that he's ever had. So if he were ever to run statewide office again, I think he would come back here to do it. It's no-knock on the liberal groups. I just don't think that anyone could sway Manchin. He's in his mid-70s. I don't think that if they - if somebody had to come in here and the primary him, it would make him sway any way at all.

MARTIN: Is there anything you want to add that I haven't had the wit to ask you?

SEVERINO: I think the most important thing to realize - I mean, this is going to be every bill for the next - until we have a new Senate, we see the new Senate in January 2023. But they all go through Senator Manchin. I mean, that was - the point of the profile I wrote about him in February is this isn't Joe Manchin's 15 minutes in fame. I mean, this is going to be two years of this.

MARTIN: That is Joe Severino from the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Joe, thanks so much for talking to us.

SEVERINO: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRENCH CONNECTION'S "AU REVOIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.