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Even Joe Manchin Was Sick of Him Holding All the Power in the Senate

Slate 12/7/2022 Jim Newell
Being the 50th vote, with all the pressure it entails, is “not an enviable position to be in,” Sen. Joe Manchin said. He’s happy to be done with it. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect © Provided by Slate Being the 50th vote, with all the pressure it entails, is “not an enviable position to be in,” Sen. Joe Manchin said. He’s happy to be done with it. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin lost some power on Tuesday night.

As the 50th and most conservative Senate Democrat for the last two years, he’s wielded effective veto power of party-line legislation and nominations. But after Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win in Tuesday’s Georgia Senate runoff, Manchin will now be the 51st vote.

Democrats, after years of working to satisfying his demands on every 50-50 vote, now have the luxury of letting him vote “no” and getting 50 votes elsewhere.

And this is just fine with Manchin.

“It’s great!” Manchin told reporters on Wednesday when asked about Democrats’ pickup of their 51st vote. (He was walking into the Capitol with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who noted that he was not a fan of Democrats getting a 51st vote.) When asked, then, whether being the 51st senator will take some of the pressure off of him, Manchin said “hope so!”

A bit later, when I noted to Manchin that he was losing a good amount of leverage, he replied, “Happy to do it.”

“The bottom line,” he said, is that being the 50th vote, and all the pressure it entails, is “not an enviable position to be in.”

Democrats got more than just a spare vote with their 51st seat. They get the majority that they never really had under the 50-50 power-sharing agreement negotiated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell two years ago.

With a clean majority in the Senate, they will finally get an actual majority on committees, which are split evenly in the current Congress. For the last two years, when a bill or nomination has been deadlocked in a committee vote, the Senate has to vote to discharge it from committee in order to get a full Senate vote. It’s slowed everything down. Now, with the risk of deadlocked committee votes substantially reduced, Democrats can ramp up the pace of confirmations.

“We can confirm probably twice as many judges,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told me Wednesday. Democrats will also be able confirm the previously unconfirmable nominees, or fill previously unfillable positions, with a vote to spare.

“And,” Blumenthal added, Democrats can “do a lot more investigative work.”

Democrats will be able to do more of that investigative work because they’ll have bigger committee budgets, and they’ll have the votes to unilaterally issue subpoenas. Given that Republicans will be taking control of the House in January, and immediately shutting down ongoing Democratic investigations there, Senate Democrats will have the opportunity to pick up where some of House Democrats’ work left off.

“All options are on the table,” Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden told reporters Wednesday about what, and with what newfound tools, he may pursue his investigative work. He hinted, without particular subtlety, that those investigations could include digging further into the saga of Trump’s tax returns now that the House Ways and Means Committee’s Democrats may have to close up shop.

“I’m not going to get into any of the, you know, procedural questions,” Wyden said. “But, as my wife always says, there’s some history here. I wrote the first Trump-related tax bill, the Presidential Tax Transparency Act, after he broke with decades of tradition being the only one who wouldn’t disclose his returns.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the most famous leftist politician in the country who’s now in line to take over the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was in a rare upbeat mood. He observed that Democrats’ bare 50-vote quasi-majority allowed Manchin to “sabotage” them on the original, expansive Build Back Better legislation. And the logjam of tie committee votes just clogged up opportunities to bring legislation to the floor.

“Having a majority will enable us to move forward much more rapidly in terms of legislation that impacts the lives of working people,” he said.

It’s not necessarily the case that Senate Democrats are going to be able to pass much more of their dream, party-line legislation, or see it signed into law. Republicans will control the House, and both Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—the second-most conservative Democrat—still don’t support weakening the filibuster. What Senate Democrats can do, though, is put messaging bills on the floor to show that they now have 50 Democratic votes, and then put Republicans on the record against them.

In an email on the eve of the Georgia runoff to members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer noted—without naming any names—that one of the ways his life would be easier with 50 votes would have particular appeal for progressives.

“No one senator has a veto,” Schumer wrote. “When you have 50 senators, any one senator can say, ‘I’m not voting for it unless I get this, this, or this.’ With 51, we can go bolder and quicker—to show Americans what Democrats stand for.”

Among those directions where Democrats could be “bolder” if certain people didn’t have a veto, he wrote, were “things like minimum wage, child care, the child tax credit, challenging big monopolies, creating more jobs, taking on Big Oil to tackle climate change, ensuring legal contraception, protecting democracy, and so much more.”

Securing that 51st vote, really, is a win-win for both Manchin and the rest of the Democratic caucus with whom he so often clashed. Senate Democrats don’t have to worry about Manchin’s veto over progressive nominations, or him blocking them from getting that 50th Democratic vote on progressive legislation (even if it’s just for messaging purposes.) And Manchin, if he chooses to run for reelection in 2024 in a deeply red state, can cast votes against a litany of Democratic priorities to distance himself from the national brand—without taking his own party’s agenda down with him.

Sure, he’ll lose some leverage. But don’t underestimate how much he’ll look forward to walking through the Capitol without 50 reporters bugging him, incessantly, about every last thing.

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