Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants

The fight over Democrats' $3.5 trillion spending bill is reviving one of Washington’s most perennial questions: What does Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal Sunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters MORE (D-W.Va.) want? 

Manchin, who occupies the proverbial eye of the 50-50 Senate, is back in the spotlight amid a highly fraught debate over the heart of President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE’s legislative agenda. He’s backchanneling with his colleagues, shadowboxing with progressives through the media and feeding GOP hopes that he’ll scale down the bill. 

Manchin, for his part, says he’s being clear in an effort to not catch anyone off-guard.  

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“Everybody knows my position,” Manchin told reporters in one of several gaggles packed into the Senate’s two-day work week. “I’ve been very clear, very open. I didn’t want anybody to say it was a surprise.” 

Manchin has drawn a hard line on not accepting a $3.5 trillion bill and urged his colleagues to hit “pause” on the legislation altogether — a request he reiterated during a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting this week. 

“Guys, my opposition is pretty well stated, I don’t know what else to tell you,” Manchin told reporters. 

Asked about Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Study finds Pfizer vaccine almost 91 percent effective for 5 to 11 year olds MORE (I-Vt.) vowing that the bill will be $3.5 trillion, Manchin added: “God bless him.” 

Manchin isn’t just any senator. The chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he’s tasked with drafting some of the clean energy and climate provisions, including a Clean Energy Payment Program that would offer incentives to transition the nation to clean energy. Democratic senators who view the program as a priority have been trying to win over Manchin. 

The House bill includes the clean energy program, but Manchin has been cagey about his own plans. “I’m not going to negotiate this in the press, I’m really not,” he said. 

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Manchin isn’t on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, but he’s pitching income-based caps for some of the benefits being drafted under the committee’s jurisdiction, including universal pre-K and two years of free community college. 

And he’s been in communication with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenClimate advocates turn sights on Wall Street Democrats scramble to reach deal on taxes Pelosi open to scrapping key components in spending package MORE (D-Ore.), even though he isn’t a member of the committee either. 

Wyden is responsible for the herculean task of figuring out how to pay for the bill, including how high to raise the corporate tax rate, which now sits at 21 percent. Though Biden pitched 28 percent and House Democrats settled on 26.5 percent, Manchin has signaled that he thinks it shouldn't go higher than 25 percent. 

“I’ve talked to him a number of times and he’s had constructive ideas,” Wyden said about his conversations with Manchin. 

The spending bill isn’t the only thing that’s thrown attention back on Manchin. He was part of a group of Democratic senators who rolled out a new voting rights bill this week. And, as one of Democrats' few holdouts on changing the filibuster, he's the caucus’s unofficial emissary to try to win over the 10 GOP senators the bill would need to break a 60-vote filibuster and met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Pelosi says GOP senators 'voted to aid and abet' voter suppression for blocking revised elections bill Manchin insists he hasn't threatened to leave Democrats MORE (R-Ky.). 

“We have, as you know, Sen. Manchin who believes that we should try to make this bipartisan. And we're giving him the opportunity to do that with the bill that he supports,” Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Guns Down America's leader says Biden 'has simply not done enough' on gun control MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters about Manchin’s mission. 

But it’s Manchin’s stance on the spending package that is sucking up much of Washington’s political oxygen and forcing Biden and Democratic leaders to solve the tricky parlor game of what will win him over.

Senate Democrats had hoped to have their committees done drafting their bill by Wednesday, but they missed that deadline as they grappled with how to unite all 50 of their members. 

Manchin met with Biden at the White House on Wednesday night, after the president met earlier in the day with fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaSunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave Biden injects new momentum into filibuster fight MORE (D-Ariz.). 

Asked how Democrats could craft the bill without knowing what Manchin and Sinema would support, Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinManchin: Negotiators to miss Friday target for deal on reconciliation bill Democrats look for plan B on filibuster The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, acknowledged that there was an “effort underway” to get all 50 unified behind a bill but that it would take “personal negotiation.” 

Sinema, like Manchin, has signaled opposition to the top-line figure and could be just as big of a headache. But Sinema, unlike Manchin, largely eschews the national press, while Manchin hit up the Sunday shows to detail his thinking on the spending package that is intended to include top Democratic priorities on immigration, climate change and Medicare.

Manchin’s stances and omnipresence in the media at times sparked unintended humor this week. 

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His TV appearances spun off a Manchin-inspired piece in The Onion, while a shirtless man won attention by calling out to Manchin as he spoke with reporters.

“Don’t make us go broke, Joe. ... We’re counting on you,” the shirtless man yelled as Manchin and several reporters shuffled by, earning a quick “yes sir” in response from Manchin. 

But Manchin's public posturing is irking progressives, who argue the entire debate shouldn’t revolve around their moderate counterpart. Progressives are threatening to flex their own political muscle after initially pitching a $6 trillion bill. 

“Everyone's a Joe Manchin,” Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalWhich proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block Democrats see light at end of tunnel on Biden agenda MORE (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said during a strategy call. “Everyone's got power.” 

Asked about Manchin’s influence on the debate over the spending package, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSinema's office outlines opposition to tax rate hikes The CFPB's data overreach hurts the businesses it claims to help Runaway higher ed spending gains little except endless student debt MORE (D-Mass.) responded: “We have 50 Democrats. We need all of them.” 

Manchin’s public criticism has sparked GOP hopes that his opposition could end up watering down the Democratic plan. Republicans will be able to offer whatever changes to the spending bill they want before a final vote in the Senate, and because of the thin margins they only need one Democrat to side with them to get a change through. 

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McConnell, during a string of recent stops in Kentucky, put a spotlight on Manchin and Sinema as the two Senate Democrats who could scale back the plan. 

“I pray for Manchin and Sinema every night, give them a lot of love, wish them well,” McConnell said at one stop. 

Asked what the GOP's strategy is on Manchin, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Senate Republicans raise concerns about TSA cyber directives for rail, aviation Democrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks MORE (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, quipped: “I tell people I’m mowing Joe Manchin’s lawn every week.” 

“Whatever he needs,” Thune added, “cleaning his place of residence, sweet talk.”