by Kiran Subramanian ’21
Published Mar. 23rd, 2021
If I were to ask you who the most powerful politician in the Senate is, some might immediately say, “Kamala Harris, the Vice President of the United States.” A smaller group might throw out names like Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader, or Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Senate Majority Leader. However, the truth is that the most powerful politician in the Senate right now is Joe Manchin III, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia.
This might be confusing. In fact, some of you may not have even heard of him prior to reading this article. However, Manchin is going to be controlling how the Senate operates for the next two years.
This occurred under unusual circumstances. After the Georgia runoff election saw Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeat incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the Senate was split in half. There were fifty Democrats (48 Democrats + 2 Independents that caucus with Democrats) and fifty Republicans.
Because of the circumstances, coupled with the increase in political polarization, many expected the Democrats to get their way and be able to pass their agenda through Congress with no problems. However, many pundits and congressional members forgot about Joe Manchin.
The interesting part about Joe Manchin’s place in the Senate is that he is labeled as a conservative democrat by people like Perry Bacon Jr. of FiveThirtyEight. The label does make sense considering that, according to GovTrack, Manchin ranked fifty-three in 2019 on a scale of one to one hundred where one meant the most conservative senator and one hundred represented the most liberal.
Outside of voting records, Manchin has proven himself willing to be a centrist in a time when the two parties move closer to the extremes. For example, Manchin has supported the Affordable Care Act. During a campaign commercial, Manchin shot a hole through a copy of the lawsuit trying to end Obamacare. At the same time, Manchin has shown his conservative side by voting in favor of many Trump appointees such as Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, along with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
It is this centrist stance in the polarized world of modern politics that makes Manchin the most powerful person in the Senate. Simply put, if Joe Manchin voted with Republicans on a piece of legislation, assuming a party split, that would mean Republicans could either strike down the Democrat agenda or pass their own agenda. Furthermore, since the vote is not tied, Vice President Harris could not cast a tiebreaker vote. This means that both sides have to cater to Joe Manchin if they want to get any kind of victory.
This is already happening.
In February, Biden announced that he chose Neera Tanden as his candidate for Director of the Office of Budget Management. When Manchin heard about the announcement, he made clear his opposition to her nomination by stating that her “overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget.” Because of this, Tanden’s nomination was removed by the White House.
Another area where Manchin proved to be a roadblock to the Democrats’ agenda was Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
One of the most controversial parts of the package was the increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour. Manchin had refused to support the stimulus because of this, instead claiming, “I’m supportive of basically having something that’s responsible and reasonable.” Because of Manchin’s opposition, Democrats removed the minimum wage increase from the stimulus package.
Theoretically, Democrats could regain their power if a Republican were to buck their party line. Senators like Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) have been seen as mavericks in the Republican Party and could be targeted by the Democrats.
However, the midterm elections in 2022 could dismantle Joe Manchin’s hold on the Senate. According to the Senate, there are twenty Republicans up for re-election in 2022 with several, including Rob Portman (R-OH) and Patrick Toomey (R-PA), announcing that they plan on retiring. It is unknown what the Senate will look like in the future, but regardless, Manchin has shown that change does not have to come from a mass movement. It can start with just one person.