You may have spied that gigantic nebula of reporters and photographers traversing a corridor in the Hart Senate Office Building. Or maybe the cluster of media by the bank of six elevators just off the Senate floor.
They weren’t there for Paris Hilton – although Paris Hilton in fact appeared at a Capitol Hill press conference Wednesday to push for legislation to curb teen abuse.
If only Hilton could command as much attention in the halls of Congress as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The prodigious media blobs that follow around Manchin are simply the norm these days on Capitol Hill. Every time Manchin makes some machinations – or perhaps, "Manchinations" – practically every reporter inside the Northern Temperate Zone descends on the West Virginia Democrat.
When reporters talk to Manchin about the social spending bill, there’s a lot of chatter about making progress. Working in good faith. Trying to advance the cause. Reporters who cover Manchin have heard those bromides for months as Democrats try to advance their $3.5 trillion – scratch that - $1.5 trillion – scratch that - $1.9 to $2.2 trillion – scratch that – $1.75 trillion social spending package.
After all, it’s Manchin who mostly directed the changes.
And on Wednesday afternoon, everyone wanted to know if Manchin may actually leave the Democratic Party if his colleagues didn’t accept his demands of a package capped at $1.75 trillion.
Writing in Mother Jones, David Corn reported that Manchin even engineered a potential exit from the Democratic Party, complete with a new party affiliation: "An American Independent."
"American Independent" is neither fish nor fowl in the nation’s political system. In fact, it sounds a lot like former Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., after he lost the 2006 Democratic primary to Ned Lamont. Lieberman deemed himself an "independent Democrat" and continued to associate with the Democratic Party. Lieberman still won reelection.
Reporters dogged Manchin after Corn’s story hit the web. Manchin immediately denied the story.
"I’m not in charge of rumors and it’s bulls---," proclaimed Manchin. "Find out who’s saying that kind of crazy stuff."
Manchin’s faced questions about his party affiliation before. On July 1, Fox colleague Bret Baier posed the following:
"What would it take for Joe Manchin to switch parties?"
"If switching a party where they have a D by your name, an R by your name, changes who you are as a person, then you’re in the wrong profession," replied Manchin. " I guess you can put me anywhere you want. But having the D or an R by my name or changing from one to another, I’ve never considered that."
The Mother Jones story suggests otherwise, spelling out an alleged, detailed exit plan by Manchin.
Corn reports that Manchin would first tell Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., he was leaving his lower-tier leadership post as vice chair of the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications committee. If that shot across the bow didn’t score Manchin what he wanted with the social spending bill, Corn reported, Manchin would abandon the Democrats and become an independent.
This is not the first time Manchin’s been caught up in some Machiavellian wheeling and dealing. Just a few weeks ago, Politico reported, and Fox later obtained a letter, signed by Manchin and Schumer over the summer. In the missive, Manchin indicated he wanted a Senate debate on the social spending bill to start by Oct. 1 and pledged he wouldn’t agree to spending more than $1.5 trillion.
The summertime letter was strange. The two-step about leaving the party is even stranger. But it all centers around Manchin. Democrats can’t pass the social spending bill without Manchin. In fact, Democrats wouldn’t even have nominal control of the 50-50 Senate without Manchin. So Manchin wields a lot of power.
That’s probably why these peculiar stories keep popping up about Manchin.
First, Manchin has a lot of enemies among progressives. Liberals view Manchin as a roadblock to accomplishing their legislative goals. They also stew over the fact that if Congress ever approves a social spending plan, it will likely be something that matches Manchin’s vision and not theirs. They also wonder why Manchin wields so much power. The answer to that question is easy. It’s about the math. Democrats need Manchin on board. If not, they’re toast.
The left can be fed up with Manchin dictating terms of the bill all they want. But the alternative for Democrats is no social spending bill. Worse yet: losing the majority in the Senate.
But despite his denials, is this also reflective of Manchin flexing his muscles and reminding everyone of his leverage, heading into the final round of negotiations?
The Mother Jones article emerged Wednesday afternoon just as the Senate was about to take a procedural vote to try to break a filibuster on a voting rights bill. After talks over the summer, Manchin pledged to support the bill. But Democrats needed 60 yeas to crack the filibuster. So even having all 50 Democrats in favor didn’t advance the cause. However, the vote also presented another opportunity for progressives to rail against Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. The left wants them to agree to alter the Senate filibuster. Maybe agree to a special carve-out for voting rights legislation. Perhaps the debt ceiling. Guns.
Manchin, Sinema – and frankly, a few other Democratic senators – won’t budge on the filibuster. But Wednesday’s failed procedural vote was another step in a long pressure campaign to update the filibuster.
"The question before the Senate is how we will find a path forward on protecting our freedoms in the 21st century," said Schumer. "The fight to protect our democracy is far from over in the United States Senate. Senate Democrats have made clear that voting rights is not like other issues we deal with in this chamber."
Schumer noted he’d tee up another procedural vote on another voting rights bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., next week,
But regardless of the political motives that prompted the Mother Jones story, the report spurred yet another day of reporters chasing Manchin all over Capitol Hill.
Just talk of a Manchin defection may have been enough to rattle liberal Democrats, who some believe have been too pushy with the West Virginia Democrat. Note the activists who followed Sinema into a restroom a few weeks ago. And, demands by the left that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer step down only spurred a rebuke.
If Manchin dropped his affiliation with Democrats, the party could lose control of the 50-50 Senate. The moderate Manchin continually defies gravity in the increasingly liberal Democratic Party. A potential Manchin defection to the GOP means Republicans win control of the Senate, 51-49. Stewardship of the Senate hasn’t switched parties in the middle of a Congress since 2001. That was the last time there was a 50-50 Senate. Republicans began the Congress as the majority that year because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney. But come springtime, the late-Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican party and became an independent. However, Jeffords agreed to caucus with the Democrats. That awarded Democrats a 51-49 edge.
Of course, if Manchin were to drop his party affiliation, he could still caucus with the Democrats. That wouldn’t alter control of the Senate. After all, Democrats currently feature two independents who caucus with them: Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Angus King, I-Maine.
By Wednesday morning, Manchin amplified what may have spurred the Mother Jones story. Manchin said he told his Democratic colleagues that if he was "an embarrassment" to them, the president or Schumer by "being a moderate centrist" he’d "switch to be an independent." But Manchin said he’d "still be caucusing with Democrats."
So memo to the left: Manchin isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It also means the bubble of reporters and photographers that seemingly follows Manchin everywhere won’t dissipate either.