A Democrat in Trump country: Joe Manchin threatens Biden’s spending spree

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From his perch as mayor of Fairmont, West Virginia, Thomas Mainella backs US senator Joe Manchin’s stubborn scepticism of Joe Biden’s $3.5tn social spending plan. Like Manchin, Mainella is a Democrat, and like Manchin, he believes the senator is right to try to put the brakes on the president’s expansive economic agenda.

“If you want to spend a lot of money and not worry about the deficit then that’s a great deal,” said Mainella, a former state police officer turned insurance agent. “[But] I think [Manchin] is financially prudent to put a pause on it.”

In both the White House and Congress, Democrats’ frustration with Manchin is rising as he continues to withhold support for a crucial pillar of Biden’s domestic economic agenda. But for residents of Marion County, the small rural coal mining community from which Manchin hails, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat is a common sense bulwark against partisanship and overspending. “We could have much more done if there were more Joe Manchins in Congress,” said Mainella.

“There’s a general distrust of DC, there’s a general distrust of Democrats, and a general distrust of the word trillion,” said John Kilwein, chair of the political science department at West Virginia University. “So if Joe Manchin gets it from $3tn to $1tn, I think that would be perceived as a good thing.”

Coal mounds at the SunCoke terminal in West Virginia
Coal mounds at the SunCoke terminal in West Virginia © Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Because the US Senate is evenly divided between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, with Kamala Harris, the vice-president, giving her party a slight edge by casting tiebreaking votes, Biden cannot afford to lose any Democratic votes on the big spending bill, giving Manchin huge leverage in the negotiations.

The president has tried wooing Manchin with a meeting in the Oval Office, attempting to persuade the senator to come on board. Some on the left of his party have berated him for dashing their hopes of quick and bold action to plough government money into child care, education, healthcare and the fight against climate change, all paid for by tax increases on companies and the wealthiest households. But in West Virginia, it is easy to see why both approaches have failed.

In Manchin’s hometown of Farmington — a town of fewer than 400 people six miles from Fairmont where his brother runs a medical clinic and the family name features on several billboards — most residents at the local dollar store expressed satisfaction with the senator. They have stayed loyal to him despite the fact that the area and the state heavily backed Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections and many constituents feel alienated from the Democratic party.

Robert Hurt, a former coal miner, said Manchin “does things that are OK and things that are bad”. But the life-long Democrat distinguishes Manchin from his party’s leaders who, he said, are now failing to stand with their voters, worrying instead about costly social pet projects. “We are in the middle of this pandemic and we should not be spending all this money.”

Fairmont received $30m for infrastructure upgrades from Washington’s earlier pandemic relief packages, and has not yet spent it all. Nick Fantasia, leader of the Marion County Regional Development Corporation, called for a comprehensive study into what the county and state needed before unleashing more federal spending.

Manchin family name on a billboard
Manchin’s hometown of Farmington with a population of fewer than 400 people is six miles from Fairmont, where his brother runs a medical clinic and the family name features on several billboards © Obey Manayiti/FT

“I agree with the Senator that we need to pause and have a deliberate approach,” Fantasia said.

West Virginia is one of the country’s poorest states and has struggled as reduced demand for coal imperils its mines. The bill under debate would provide resources to economically struggling areas such as coal mining communities, and create a much stronger social safety net that would particularly benefit low and middle income families. Yet Manchin is resisting the bill’s high price tag, as well as specific provisions, including the scale of the climate change measures and the tax increases.

“We’ve tried to help Americans in every way we possibly can and a lot of the help that we’ve put out there is still there and it’s going to run clear until next year, 2022, so what’s the urgency?” Manchin asked on CNN this month.

Political observers attribute Manchin’s resistance not only to his state’s conservative tilt, but also to fears that big changes could hurt the profitability of major donors in West Virginia and elsewhere. According to Open Secrets, a Washington-based organisation that tracks political spending, Tellurian, the Texas based natural gas company, has been Manchin’s biggest contributor since 2017.

Manchin, who is 74 years old and has served in the Senate since 2010, is facing a very delicate political balancing act of his own. In 2018, he won re-election by an exceedingly tight margin of 49.6 per cent to 46.3 per cent, after comfortably beating his opponents in the previous two elections.

“Manchin’s been declining in popularity for years and I think part of the reason for that is that he is in West Virginia the embodiment of the corporate establishment,” said Katey Lauer, co-chair of WV Can’t Wait, a progressive movement, adding that Manchin is part of a “wealthy good old boys club” that “transcends party”.

He has not said whether he will run again in 2024, but his reputation locally is likely to be more decisive than any tactical manoeuvring in Washington — and some voters in Marion County are reassessing their backing.

Gordon Bowers, a local lumber grader who has long supported the senator, has started having doubts. Manchin’s boycott of the $3.5tn package was smart, he said, “but I don’t think he has any more good ideas . . . I don’t think he knows exactly what he should do”.

Logan Bolling, another Fairmont voter, was similarly impatient. “A lot of people support him but I do not,” he said: “We are losing coal mining jobs here and when you get one, it’s a seasonal one. People want to see things happening but I think his stance right now is just to make people suffer.”

As for Biden’s social spending bill, the White House and many Democrats hoped that as time went by, Manchin’s resistance might crack. It only appears to have hardened.

“A few months ago I would have put 50 bucks down that he doesn’t want to tank it but now maybe five bucks,” said Kilwein from West Virginia University. “Maybe he calculates that he can come back and say ‘Look, I stopped them; the progressives are just gonna bleed us dry in terms of spending’.”

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