With Democrats on the cusp of winning a pair of Senate runoff races in Georgia on Tuesday — and taking back control of the chamber — political commentators have already begun speculating on how much President-elect Joe Biden can do with a united government.
That could hinge on the decisions over the next several months of one man: West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III.
Mr Manchin, a Democrat serving his second full term in the Senate, is perhaps the most conservative member of his party in Washington.
He voted to confirm Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. He has strongly opposed liberal policy proposals such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. And he has backed several of Donald Trump’s most controversial immigration proposals, including withholding funding from “sanctuary cities” and building a physical wall along the US-Mexico border.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr Manchin opposes key structural changes to the US government floated by his more liberal colleagues that would upend the bipartisan policymaking process in Washington.
Chief among those liberal proposals are:
- ending the Senate’s filibuster rule for legislation, which effectively requires 60 or more senators to support a bill for it to pass and
- expanding the Supreme Court to dilute its current 6-3 conservative majority.
If Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeat GOP Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in Georgia (as most elections forecasters now expect them to given the current tabulation of votes) that will knot the Senate at 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tiebreaker votes.
That gives Democrats a knife’s-edge majority, mastery of what does and does not receive a vote, and the all-important committee gavels. But it leaves them unable to repeal the filibuster — and, in turn, add more seats to the Supreme Court — without Mr Manchin’s support.
He has made his position crystal clear on multiple occasions over the last several months.
“I commit to you tonight, and I commit to all of your viewers and everyone else that’s watching — I want to allay those fears, I want to rest those fears for you right now because when they talk about whether it be packing the courts, or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that,” Mr Manchin said in an interview with Fox News in November, shortly after the 2020 general election.
“I will not vote to pack the courts … and I will not vote to end the filibuster.”
Throughout their runoff election campaigns, Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler have been pitching themselves to conservative voters as the last lines of defence against a “radical socialist” takeover in Washington.
In an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo in November, Mr Perdue laid out what would become the drumbeat of his campaign message over the next two months:
“[Senate Democratic Leader Chuck] Schumer will change the rules in the Senate so they can do anything they want with 50 votes plus the vice president's vote as a tiebreaker. They'll pack the court—they want to add four new Democrat seats by adding two new states—and they eventually want to do away with the Electoral College,” Mr Perdue said.
“That will allow them to perpetrate this agenda they've been espousing now through the presidential primary all year, and that is [the] Green New Deal — they want to defund the police, [have] open borders. They want to have sanctuary cities,” said the Republican senator.
Mr Manchin is on the record opposing every single item Mr Perdue listed in that interview.
The West Virginia Democrat, 73, is not up for re-election again until 2024, coinciding with the next presidential cycle.
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