Manchin cements key-vote status in 50-50 Senate

As Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.Y.) scrambled to save the massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus package, he warned Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet with CEOs to discuss Build Back Better agenda Hoyer says 'significant' version of Build Back Better will pass this year Gallego went to New York to meet Sinema donors amid talk of primary challenge: report MORE (D-W.Va.) that supporting a GOP unemployment proposal would effectively sink the legislation.

"I said that’s going to kill the bill, Joe. That is going to kill the bill. He thought about it for several hours, and realized that. And then said, ‘OK, let’s come to a compromise,’" Schumer recounted during an CNN interview Tuesday night.

Manchin ultimately fell back in line after outreach from President BidenJoe BidenDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors On The Money — Vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses nixed Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case MORE and concessions on the unemployment language his caucus had touted just hours before as an agreement.

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But the drama underscored Manchin's power and served as a preview of the headaches likely awaiting Schumer as he tries to keep his most conservative member on board without losing progressives in the process.

With a 50-50 split in the chamber, Manchin is at the center of the Senate and its looming fights, putting him under a massive spotlight where any utterance quickly gets dissected over what it could mean for Biden and congressional Democrats.

Manchin stressed that he doesn’t view himself as having veto power over Biden’s agenda, even after he was able to muscle in changes to the COVID-19 relief bill and helped sink Neera TandenNeera TandenBiden to sign order to streamline government services to public Politics, media worlds react to Wallace news Biden's head of personnel to leave White House for UNICEF MORE’s nomination for Office of Management and Budget director.

“I don’t look at that at all, I really don’t. There's got to be other people ... that has to believe that we’ve got to calm down and come together,” Manchin told The Hill.

He said that while reporters might assume “everybody loves to be in this position — trust me, there’s nothing I enjoy at all about this. At all. I wish there were more people that were willing to try to find a compromise.”

But he’s also not shying away from the spotlight.

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Manchin went on a media blitz with the Sunday morning shows and appeared on Fox News two days later. In between, he gaggled with reporters around the Capitol.

And even though the relief bill is now headed to Biden’s desk, Manchin’s ability to flex his political muscles isn’t going away anytime soon. He’s undecided on Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests MORE’s nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Pentagon is urging him to support Colin Kahl’s nomination to a top policy job.

He’s also in the middle of a fight over what, if anything, Democrats will be able to accomplish while the legislative filibuster remains intact.

“Well, he's been the most outspoken, along with Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema, on this question. And that's why he gets  you call it grief,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Democrats ask for information on specialized Border Patrol teams Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks MORE (D-Ill.), asked if Manchin was the obstacle to nixing the filibuster rule.

“I think he’s very genuine about bipartisanship. ... I've seen him devote more hours than you can imagine,” Durbin said. “So I mean, he really cares about it, and I respect him for it. But, you know, there comes a point where there aren’t enough Republicans to provide votes, and we can't achieve bipartisanship that way.”

Manchin created a frenzy, and earned praise from reform advocates, after he appeared to open the door on Sunday to the idea of requiring a “talking filibuster,” effectively making opponents stand on the Senate floor and speak instead of being able to block a bill behind the scenes.

But two days later, Manchin clarified, saying he wanted a 60-vote threshold or a “41 protest vote” and appeared surprised by how his remarks had been interpreted.

“All I said is bring me some ideas. ... The only thing I can tell you is I’m not going to do anything to harm the filibuster,” Manchin said. “There’s a 60-vote threshold. If there’s a better way to make sure the minority has input, tell it to me.”

Asked if he had seen the amount of press coverage his Sunday comments had spawned, Manchin added: “Right now they’re just hanging on anything to make news.” 

Though several Democrats are wary of nixing the filibuster, it was on-the-record opposition from Manchin and Sinema (D-Ariz.) that helped convince Republicans to drop a demand that language on the procedural tool be included in the 50-50 Senate’s organizing resolution earlier this year.

“I’ve spoken to both of them, and some just recently here in the last few days, and they’re very adamant about that,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThere is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections Juan Williams: It's Trump vs. McConnell for the GOP's future Biden's year two won't be about bipartisanship  MORE (R-S.D.) said about the pledge to keep the filibuster in place.

Manchin also finds himself at the center of two big policy fights: an infrastructure package that Democrats are hoping to pass by September and pressure on Biden to make good on his promise to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

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Manchin isn’t the only Democrat who’s not on board with a minimum wage hike; eight voted against it late last week, underscoring the uphill climb for progressives.

But he’s circulating a proposal among his colleagues to set the minimum wage at $11 and then index it to inflation. Manchin has been handing out so-called floor cards, small pieces of paper that include reasons he believes senators should back his forthcoming plan.

On infrastructure, Manchin’s vote will be critical if Biden hopes to get his legislative package through the Senate. Manchin is making it clear that he wants more than a perfunctory effort to get GOP support for the measure.

Manchin, a conservative Democrat from a state Trump easily won in 2016 and 2020, is in many ways part of a dying breed in an increasingly polarized Senate. Republicans view him as one of their best negotiating partners, while progressives view him as out of touch to the no-holds-barred style of politics that is increasingly seeping into the Capitol’s clubby atmosphere.

“It gets to the point where the rubber’s got to meet the road on the filibuster. And I’m sorry, but so many of my Democratic colleagues in the Senate need to wake up and smell the coffee,” said Rep.  Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezNew Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Hispanics sour on Biden and Democrats' agenda as midterms loom MORE (D-N.Y.), warning that Democrats were “romanticizing” the history of the filibuster and calling opposition from Manchin and others to abolishing it "ridiculous."

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), in an interview with The Guardian, added that “if Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”

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Schumer, asked on Wednesday, declined to say what Democrats would ultimately do about the filibuster but pledged they were united in wanting to enact a “bold” agenda.

“I get along very well with Sen. Manchin. We don’t agree on some things but we always talk to each other,” Schumer said.

Manchin had an infamously antagonistic relationship with Schumer’s predecessor, Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats say change to filibuster just a matter of time The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits MORE (Nev.), with no love lost on either side. But Manchin agreed that he and Schumer have a good relationship, saying the Brooklynite “knows where I’m coming from.”

But he warned that how his party handles their fragile majority — including the eventual outcome of the filibuster rules fight — could come back to haunt them.

“This is the perfect scenario, what goes around comes around,” he said. “Whatever you do here, and you think you have the ability to do it by using the procedures and the rules, it will come back around to you and it will hurt you.”

Updated at 8:08 a.m.