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The decisive vote that turned Democrat Joe Manchin from 'villain' to 'hero'

IANS | August 12, 2022 02:14 AM

WASHINGTON: Democrat Joe Manchin from West Virginia has turned 'hero' from 'villain' by pulling through with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to get the historic $750 billion bill of President Joe Biden on climate change, healthcare and inflation reduction passed in the Senate.

He voted along with 50 fellow Democrats including Arizona democrat Krysten Sinema, who had blocked the legislation, demanding a flat 15 per cent tax on corporates to replace the "carried over interest" taxes.

Manchin had opposed the bill for a year fearing that huge public spending would generate more inflation pressures than controlling it.

The 15 per cent corporate tax proposed by Sinema would yield much more revenues to the US government to fund the climate change bill of $400 billion out of the total $750 billion legislation. The total public spend on all three counts is expected to be close to $1.9 trillion in the final stages against the BBB initiative of nearly $3 trillion proposed by Joe Biden.

Joe Manchin had spent much of last year as the villain of liberal America, receiving the kind of criticism that's usually reserved for Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell or a conservative Supreme Court justice. Activists aggressively protested against Manchin, some in kayaks outside his houseboat in Washington, others surrounding his car and hurling abuses at him.

One Democratic House member called him 'anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant', while others called him 'untrustworthy'.

Bernie Sanders, independent from Vermont and an unsuccessful presidential candidate, accused Manchin of "intentionally sabotaging the president's agenda" and suggested that Manchin's wealthy donors were the reason. Other critics called him a shill for the energy industry, noting that he personally owns a coal company.

In a dramatic twist of events, Manchin made it possible for the Senate to pass the most aggressive climate bill in American history. That bill seems likely to accomplish almost as much greenhouse-gas reduction as President Biden's original proposal would have under the most profound 'Build, Back and Better' initiative.

As noted economist Paul Krugman, the Times columnist, wrote, "Actual experts on energy and the environment are giddy over what has been accomplished."

On Friday, the House is expected to pass the same bill - which will also reduce inequities in healthcare access - and Biden plans to sign it soon afterward.

In a newsletter from the New York Times posted to journalists and subscribers, it said Manchin's place in American politics should be reconsidered, given his ultimate support for the Senate bill. "What were his critics right about? What were they wrong about? And what are the larger political lessons?"

The simplest fact about Manchin is that he is the most electorally successful member of Congress: Nobody else has won a seat as difficult as his. Trump won West Virginia by 39 percentage points in 2020, more than any other state except Wyoming. Yet Manchin has repeatedly won statewide elections in West Virginia as a Democrat.

Manchin is one of only four current Senators whose victories truly defied their state's partisan lean. And his victory was much more difficult than those of the other three -- Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine.

"Having a Democratic Senator in 2021 in a state like West Virginia - where neither Hillary Clinton nor Biden could crack 30 per cent of the vote - is a remarkable bit of good fortune for the Democrats, " Hans Noel, a Georgetown University political scientist, said.

Without Manchin in the Senate, Biden's presidency would look very different. The climate bill would almost certainly have failed. So would have the expansion of healthcare. Biden would also have a harder time getting judges and other nominees confirmed, the New York Times newsletter said.

Manchin's liberal critics sometimes imagine that they know more about winning a West Virginia election than he does - and that he could keep winning even if he behaved like most Democrats.

As Ruy Teixeira, another political scientist, wrote, "If only he was not the actually-existing Joe Manchin from the actually-existing conservative state of West Virginia but instead some other Joe Manchin from some other, much more liberal, West Virginia!"

It's true that Manchin has helped defeat some Democratic priorities over the past two years. He doomed the extension of an expanded child tax credit that would have reduced child poverty. He refused to abandon the filibuster to pass changes to voting rights (although he wasn't the only Senate Democrat opposed to doing so). He helped block two highly qualified Biden nominees, Sarah Bloom Raskin as a top Federal Reserve official and Neera Tanden as the budget director. But these Democratic disappointments were not shocking.

Manchin has survived by being a loyal Democrat on some issues - like healthcare, labour issues, taxes on the wealthy and, for the most part, climate policy - and defying the party in high-profile ways on other issues.

His criticism of Biden's proposals over the past year increased his approval rating in West Virginia, polls showed.

"It should be possible for Democrats to hold two thoughts at once about the West Virginia politician, " Noel explained in The Washington Post.

First, Manchin is more conservative than most Democrats and sometimes damages the party's agenda. Second, he nonetheless may be the most valuable Democrat in Washington today. (If you believe Biden was the only plausible 2020 nominee who would have beaten Trump, then perhaps Manchin is in second place)

With all this said, the NYT newsletter said had Manchin blocked the climate bill, as he seemed on the verge of doing, it would have represented a bigger break with his party than anything he had done before. It would have come on an issue of signature importance to the country and the world.

The obvious question is whether the criticism itself helped change Manchin's mind. Many of the harshest attacks probably didn't matter: After all, he has heard similar criticism about his positions on the filibuster and voting rights, and he hasn't budged.

But the specific argument that he alone could be responsible for climate damage may have helped sway him. That, at least, is the impression of many observers on Capitol Hill.

"Manchin always signaled he was open to going big on climate, " Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive California Democrat, told SFGate this week.

Carl Hulse, The Times's chief Washington correspondent, said: "Manchin did not want to be the man Democrats blamed for single-handedly letting the planet go up in flames. He was the one returning to Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority leader n(D-California), looking to make a deal after the onslaught of criticism."

Biden's near $3 trillion spend on climate change on BBB was shaved off to $1.9 trillion to satisfy him on the massive public spend that would give returns on investment and successfully placated him. Manchin feared massive inflation and not serving the cause of inflation reduction.

Ultimately, Manchin is much more of a positive than a negative for Democrats. The party's bigger problem is that it does not have more versions of Joe Manchin, because it struggles so mightily to win elections in heavily working-class regions outside major metropolitan areas.

With even one more Democrat in the Senate, Manchin's progressive apostasy would be far less consequential than it is. His vote would no longer be vital, the Times newsletter concluded.

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