The Senate was more than two hours into a vote on Friday afternoon as Jon Tester and several fellow Democrats pleaded with Joe Manchin.
The voluble West Virginian was talking with his colleagues, but even after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) implored him to move forward on a compromise approach to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid aid bill, she and Tester weren’t getting anywhere with Manchin. Tester didn’t understand quite where Manchin was coming from as he resisted what Democratic leaders had already marketed as a popular compromise.
“I was trying to get Joe to work with Chuck [Schumer] to move this process forward,” Tester said. Asked on Friday evening what Manchin’s issue was, the Montanan said: “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
Manchin’s outsized influence has cast its shadow over the Senate since the day the Democrats captured their scant 50-50 majority. He’s already derailed a Cabinet nominee and led the opposition to a federal $15 minimum wage even as his party’s leaders pushed for it. But Friday was Manchin’s most quintessential 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 significant concessions to get Manchin on board. He trimmed several weeks of unemployment benefits off of Sen. Tom Carper’s (D-Del.) compromise amendment from earlier in the day and added a $150,000 cap to the proposal’s tax deduction for up to $10,000 in unemployment benefits.
Manchin had hinted earlier in the week that he would exert his pull over the relief debate. In an interview, he suggested that by June or July the economy should be opening up as vaccines become more widespread and the coronavirus recedes. And he worried about paying people more than $1,000 extra a month to stay home.
“We want people to get back to work. We’re gonna have a hard time getting people ready to go back in to keep the economy going,” he said on Tuesday. “It’d be awful for the doors to open up and there’s no one working. ... That’s the problem.”
The episode perplexed Democrats, who said Manchin threatened what they understood to be a universally acceptable compromise extending unemployment payments through September and making those benefits nontaxable. That earlier deal also trimmed the weekly benefit from $400 to $300, as Manchin had sought.
Manchin's dug-in Friday also exposed a rare rift between him and his moderate Arizona ally. Unlike Manchin, Sinema wanted to extend the unemployment benefits past August and raised the issue on a private caucus call this week, according to a source on the call. She also could be heard on the floor, alongside Tester, trying to convince Manchin to go along with Carper's proposal.
As a roll-call vote on the minimum wage stayed open and the hours ticked by, Manchin flirted with siding with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and his proposal to axe the unemployment bonus payments in July. Portman and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) worked to get Manchin’s support while Republicans urged him to stand strong.
Portman spoke with Manchin and Sinema several times on Friday, with Manchin then going back to Democrats and asking for concessions, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.
Though Manchin’s brand is bipartisanship, his eleventh-hour dalliance with the GOP may ding his credibility across the aisle.
“To give in at this point would raise all sorts of questions. What’d they give you? Why’d you cave? There’s no way, at this point, this looks good,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) shortly before Manchin and his party reached a deal.
Still, as Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) put it, Manchin is “always comfortable the way he is. I don’t worry about him. He’ll do what Joe thinks is right.”
But for Democrats, their 50th vote siding with Republicans was not a palatable option. Manchin's party was worried about getting to final passage “without doing major injury to the bill,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
Not to mention that Portman’s change “is not a good thing in the context of the congressional schedule,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), referring to making extra benefits expire in July.
“That would not be good for people,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) of the prospect of Manchin siding with Republicans. “He has a right to it. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us wouldn’t be frustrated about it.”
There were signs earlier in the week that moderate Democrats would have an issue with the Covid bill's extra unemployment insurance benefits. Several of them held a call with Biden on Monday to talk about paring back some of the bill’s economic relief. Carper and Manchin sought to change the $400 weekly payment approved by the House to $300, where it currently stands, while Manchin was already pressing to phase out the bill's $1,400 stimulus checks completely to people making $80,000 a year.
But Manchin’s dramatic play on Friday perplexed even his West Virginia counterpart, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). Their state’s governor had been pushing Congress to go bigger, not smaller.
“I have no idea what he’s doing, to be quite frank,” she said. “Maybe you can tell me.”