Manchin’s enormous influence has overshadowed the Senate since the day Democrats captured their slim 50-50 majority. He has already derailed a cabinet nominee and led the opposition to a federal minimum wage of $ 15 even when pressured by his party leaders. But Friday was Manchin’s biggest moment: The centrist Democrat paralyzed the entire Senate for more than 10 hours and threatened to side with Republicans seeking to cut weeks of unemployment benefits.
In the end, it took a direct call from President Biden, a meeting with Schumer, and major concessions for Manchin to participate. It cut several weeks of unemployment benefits from Senator Tom Carper’s (D-Del.) Compromise amendment from earlier and added a limit of $ 150,000 to the proposal’s tax deduction for up to $ 10,200 in unemployment benefits.
The agreement Manchin obtained ensures that increased benefits from the pandemic expire before the current expiration of government funding. His party had hoped to extend the aid through September, but now it will expire on Labor Day amid a scheduled recess.
Manchin had hinted earlier in the week that he would influence the relief debate. In an interview, he suggested that by June or July the economy should open up as vaccines go mainstream and the coronavirus recedes. And he was concerned about paying people an extra $ 1,000 a month to stay home.
“We want people to go back to work. We are going to have a hard time getting people ready to go back and keep the economy going, ”he said Tuesday. “It would be terrible if the doors were opened and no one was working. … That’s the problem.”
The episode puzzled Democrats, who said Manchin threatened what they understood to be a universally acceptable compromise that extended unemployment payments through September and made those benefits non-taxable. That earlier deal also cut the weekly benefit from $ 400 to $ 300, as Manchin had sought.
Manchin’s entrenched Friday also exposed a rare rift between him and his moderate Arizona ally. Unlike Manchin, Sinema wanted to extend unemployment benefits last August and raised the issue in a private caucus call this week, according to a source on the call. She could also be heard on the ground, alongside Tester, trying to convince Manchin to accept Carper’s proposal.
As the roll call vote on the minimum wage remained open and the hours ticked by, Manchin flirted with Senator Rob Portman’s proposal to eliminate unemployment bonus payments in July. Manchin had been speaking with the Ohio Republican for more than a week and had previously committed to his amendment, according to sources familiar with the matter. Portman and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (RS.D.) worked to gain Manchin’s support as Republicans urged him to stand his ground.
Portman spoke to Manchin and Sinema several times on Friday, and then Manchin turned to Democrats and asked for concessions, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. When Portman’s proposal to end unemployment payments early came Friday night, Manchin voted in favor. But then he also supported the Democratic alternative that he pushed for change, effectively overwriting his vote with the Republican Party.
Although Manchin’s trademark is bipartisanship, his last-minute flirtation with Republicans can hurt his credibility.
“Giving in on this point would raise all kinds of questions. What did they give you? Why did you sink? There’s no way this is looking good at this point, ”Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) Said shortly before Manchin and his party reached an agreement.
Still, as Senator Richard Burr (RN.C.) put it, Manchin “always feels comfortable the way he is. I don’t care about him. He will do what Joe thinks is right. “
But for Democrats, their 50th vote alongside Republicans was not an acceptable option. Manchin’s party was concerned about reaching final passage “without seriously damaging the bill,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
Not to mention that the Portman change “is not a good thing in the context of the Congressional calendar,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) Said, referring to making the fringe benefits expire in July.
“That would not be good for the people,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said of the prospect of Manchin siding with the Republicans. “You have a right to it. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us wouldn’t be frustrated by it. “
Earlier in the week, there were indications that moderate Democrats would have a problem with the additional unemployment insurance benefits from the Covid bill. Several of them held a call with Biden on Monday to discuss cutting some of the economic relief from the bill. Carper and Manchin sought to change the House-approved $ 400 weekly payment to $ 300, where it currently stands, while Manchin was already pushing to completely remove the $ 1,400 stimulus checks from the bill for earners. $ 80,000 a year.
But Manchin’s dramatic play on Friday stumped even his West Virginia counterpart, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.). The governor of his state had been pushing Congress to be bigger, not smaller.
“I have no idea what he’s doing, to be blunt,” he said. “Maybe you can tell me.”