Senate

As clock ticks down, Manchin is the vote to get on spending plan

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is being lobbied intensely from all sides as President Biden and Democratic negotiators try to clinch a deal on their massive economic spending plan.

Manchin stands at the center of a 50-50 Senate and is one of the hardest "yes" votes for the White House to win over, making him an unofficial gatekeeper for what does, and doesn't, get in the social spending bill, which started around $3.5 trillion but appears likely to end up closer to his preferred top-line figure of $1.5 trillion.

Manchin swears he doesn't enjoy the current scrutiny as the make-or-break vote on several of the party's priorities.

"I wouldn't wish it on anybody," he said during an event with The Economic Club of Washington, D.C. "It's not pleasant. ... There's nothing fun about it."

But Manchin's influence is being widely felt as Democrats try to get a framework agreement in a matter of days.

He snagged a rare invite to Biden's house in Delaware over the weekend, where he, the president and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to iron out key differences between the red-state Democrat and most of his colleagues.

While Manchin has frustrated some Democrats, they are aware they can't afford to lose him if they want their priorities, including the Build Back Better spending package, to make it to Biden's desk.

They are actively trying to pitch him on getting at least some of their priorities into the bill.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is trying to get Manchin to give a green light to including paid parental leave in the bill, one area that is at risk of potentially being cut altogether.

Democrats had hoped to provide 12 weeks of paid leave. Biden said last week it could be shrunk down to four weeks, but Democrats say they are now actively trying to get Manchin to sign off on any paid leave to be in the bill.

"I am negotiating with him right now to see if we can include paid leave in a final package," Gillibrand told reporters.

She added that she was drafting a new proposal and was in "nonstop" conversations with Manchin, who declined to comment multiple times to reporters Tuesday except to say that they were negotiating.

It's not just Gillibrand. Both House and Senate Democrats are talking to Manchin about their push to extend Medicaid to roughly 2 million people in states that didn't expand their programs under ObamaCare.

Manchin has argued that he thinks the proposal would be unfair to states, such as his, that have already voluntarily expanded. But Democrats indicated Tuesday that they are still trying to work with him as they seek to lock down the broad details of an agreement this week.

"I told him we need to expand Medicaid, and at the end of the day West Virginia is going to get a little bit more than us with this deal," said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). "So I'm still hopeful that we'll get that done."

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) also called Manchin this week to talk up Medicaid expansion.

"I wasn't making an argument with him," Clyburn said. "I just laid out what I think we ought to do."

Manchin has also met with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). Manchin mentioned the back-to-back meetings during his weekend talks with Biden, who previously joked that getting Manchin and Sanders in the same room would be "homicide."

"So I went Sunday, I said, 'Mr. President, I took your advice. Bernie and I have met the last three days for at least an hour a day getting to know each other,' " Manchin said. "I had a wonderful meeting with Pramila Jayapal."

But Manchin and Sanders have also been locked in a days-long proxy war over using the spending bill to expand Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental.

Manchin has signaled that he doesn't support the expansion, arguing lawmakers should focus on shoring up Medicare long-term, while Sanders on Tuesday described the policy as a must-have in the eventual bill.

The two men then huddled in the Senate basement Tuesday afternoon, where they urged reporters to give them space so they could talk privately.

Manchin was once part of a sizable faction of Senate moderates in both parties. But in recent years that middle has become increasingly small and Manchin this week acknowledged his growing outlier status by describing himself as "out of sync" with 48 members of the Senate Democratic Conference.

He joked publicly about his odd-man-out status during the event with The Economic Club on Tuesday, saying that his life would be "much easier" if he flipped parties, and that he is approached about the topic every day.

"I don't think the R's would be any more happier with me than the D's right now. ... I don't know where in the hell I belong," he said, sparking laughter from the audience.

It has also made Manchin the subject of intense public focus. Manchin was confronted by climate activists multiple times around Washington on Tuesday.

A small group of them confronted him as he left the Capitol on Tuesday and headed toward the Hart Office Building, asking him, "Why are you blocking our bill?"

But Democrats also believe they have a path to getting a deal on the climate provisions, including a fee on methane emissions, with buy-in from Manchin. A group of Democrats including Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) met with Manchin on Monday night as they tried to craft the climate language.

And even as Manchin has rankled some members of his party by drawing red lines on their priorities, congressional Democrats say they have a better sense of his positions than fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has done most of her negotiating directly with the White House.

"Sen. Manchin has been a straight shooter. You know exactly where he stands," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) during an interview with Fox News. "I disagree with areas, but I respect that."

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