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Vice President Kamala Harris’ West Virginia media appearances last week – in which she tried to sell the Biden administration’s COVID-19 stimulus plan – didn’t go over well with the red state’s longtime Democratic senator, Joe Manchin.
Manchin, whose moderate vote is enough to sink President Joe Biden’s agenda in a Senate split 50-50, chided the administration for not giving him a heads up on the interviews, contending “That’s not a way of working together.”
While Manchin and the White House made up, Harris’ misstep with the powerful swing senator exemplifies how politically attuned the administration has to be to push through its legislation in a narrowly divided Senate with moderate pockets on both sides.
Here’s what happened and why it matters to the Biden administration.
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Harris on West Virginia television
On Jan. 28, the vice president spoke with West Virginia television station WSAZ, answering questions about the administration’s policy agenda and priorities for the next round of COVI-19 stimulus legislation.
The appearance, part of a series of interviews Harris gave to local media in West Virginia and Arizona, was seen as an unwelcome foray into Manchin’s turf. The senator said the White House had not informed him of the vice president’s appearance ahead of time.
“I couldn’t believe it. No one called me,” he told reporters the following week. The senator later, however, said “there’s no apologies needed” and that while the White House had made “a mistake” in sending Harris, “we move on, you can’t dwell on those things.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a press conference that Manchin remained “a key partner to the president and to the White House on not just this package, but on his agenda.” Harris is expected to continue promoting the White House’s policy goals in public appearances and in negotiations.
Manchin holds big sway in the Senate
Manchin, a moderate Democrat from a conservative state, has already emerged as a pivotal player in the evenly split Senate, where Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote on any legislation if they hope to stand up to Republican opposition.
Manchin routinely draws focus in Washington because of his tendency to if not side with Republicans, at least keep Democrats guessing as to whether he’ll side with them. Manchin voted to confirm Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, two of President Donald Trump’s conservative picks. And he also played a crucial part in brokering the last COVID stimulus package passed in December.
If Biden wants to curb fossil fuels, he’ll have to win over Manchin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, whose state remains a top producer of coal that would be a prime target of climate legislation.
Manchin, who had called for a bipartisan compromise on the next round of stimulus funding, has indicated he will support the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package and would do so through budget reconciliation, a process Democrats want to
Manchin is a Democrat in a Trump state
Manchin, a Democrat in a red state, exemplifies the range of the Democratic party that Harris and Biden must maneuver if they wants to pass their priorities.
Manchin has served in the Senate since 2010, but has a long history in his state’s political system. He was previously the governor, secretary of state and before that served nearly 15 years in both chambers of the West Virginia legislature.
Since his election to the Senate, West Virginia has become an increasingly red state; Donald Trump won the state in both 2016 and 2020 by about 40 points each time. The state last supported a Democrat for president in 1996.
But Manchin has been able to thread the precarious political needle, making him an important voice in West Virginia politics. He has been to the right of his Democratic colleagues on issues like abortion, gun rights and clean energy issues. But when he was challenged by a more left-leaning activist in 2018, he won 70 percent of the vote. He went on to narrowly win reelection, topping his Republican opponent by about 3 percentage points.
Harris has tie breaking vote, tasked with working with senators
Harris, who served as the junior senator from California before becoming vice president, is expected to be a constant presence in the upper chamber as president of the Senate and envoy to the White House.
Democrats will need to be completely united for Harris to cast any tie-breaking votes, meaning lawmakers must reach a consensus between moderate senators like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and more progressive members of the caucus.
There are limits to Harris’ influence. Biden, who served in the Senate 36 years before becoming vice president to former President Barack Obama, is a committed negotiator with longtime relationships in the Senate himself.
Biden maintains a longtime relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the two have already spoken on multiple occasions since Biden’s inauguration. It is unclear if dialogue between the two may lead to greater compromise.
But if Democrats want to use reconciliation, the legislative workaround that would allow Democrats to pass Biden’s stimulus plan without Republican support, it would be Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. And Democrats say they will use that method to get a bill passed quickly, rather than wait to make a deal with Republicans.
“We cannot, cannot afford to dither, delay or dilute. We need a big, bold package along the lines of what President Biden has proposed, the American Relief Plan,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Contributing: Joey Garrison, Nicholas Wu
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