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Why Sen. Joe Manchin is so consequential right now

The Democrats need the West Virginian’s vote for just about anything they want to do.

Sen. Joe Manchin is the most conservative member of the Democrats’ 50-member quasi-majority.
Sen. Joe Manchin is the most conservative member of the Democrats’ 50-member quasi-majority.
Leigh Vogel/Pool via REUTERS

To a significant degree, we may be governed for the next two years by Manchinism.

Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, the most conservative member of the Democratic Senate caucus, has enormous power over everything Democrats might want to accomplish. How he uses this leverage will perhaps make him as consequential, or perhaps more, than Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

And Manchin said in a Wednesday interview in the Washington Post that he is all about “bipartisanship,” a word that appears six times in that article. In that interview Manchin stated flatly that he will not go along with the urge among many Democrats to do away with or in any weaken the Senate filibuster rule.

Bipartisanship is nice, as far as it goes. But the current situation strains it to the limits. The Senate is divided 50-50 by party (counting Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, both of whom call themselves independents but caucus with the Dems).

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But Manchin, a lifelong Democrat but perhaps the most conservative and most independent of them all in the Senate, is not terribly susceptible to pressure from his party, since he is likely the only candidate who can hold that Senate seat for the Democrats in West Virginia, a state in which Trump beat Biden by a staggering 69-30 percent margin.

Schumer, a mainstream liberal and smart strategist, would like as much as possible to pass the programs of President Joe Biden (also a mainstream liberal and also a major expert on how things work in the Senate, where he served for 36 years).

Schumer and Biden will be big figures for at least the next two years, but it’s not hard to argue that Manchin is the third big player on the Democratic side.

The far-left members of the Senate caucus, perhaps personified by Sanders, seem to understand that however much they favor a big, progressive agenda, they may have to settle for whatever the somewhat more moderate Biden favors. But it’s also becoming clear that they need Manchin’s vote for just about anything they want to do.

Assuming – and this seems for the moment to be a widely shared assumption – that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can hold together his 50-member caucus to block most things Biden might want to do, Manchin’s unwillingness to support a change in the filibuster rule is a big deal.