Regular Joes: Biden and Manchin, whose old relationship faces new test

When President Barack Obama was in office and the White House needed to reach Sen. Joe Manchin, one person was always tasked with making the call: then-Vice President Joe Biden.

Manchin arrived in Washington as a former governor, filling the seat of the legendary Robert C. Byrd. He had little interest in talking to staff — even if they worked in the West Wing.
“(Biden) was the only one who called that mattered,” a person familiar with the dynamic between Manchin and Biden said, recalling the early days of the relationship between the senator and the former vice president. “Biden is the only person from the administration Manchin would listen to.”
    Today, the Biden-Manchin relationship — two East Coast Joes with blue-collar roots — is one of the most closely watched in the capital and could help determine the success of Biden’s agenda, if not his presidency, from voting rights to gun safety.
      The outsized role that centrist senators such as Manchin will play have earned them both the attention — and, in some instances, the private ire — of White House officials, who are loathe to appear beholden to a small group of lawmakers, but have almost no room for error on close votes.
        The rules of the Senate have always allowed any individual senator to slow down a nomination, but the dynamics of a 50-50 split in the chamber have given Manchin — along with a handful of other moderates willing to break with their party — even more power in determining the fate of a nomination or a piece of legislation.

        Manchin’s role

          President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden meet with Govs. Bob Riley and Joe Manchin in the State Dining Room February 3, 2010.

          Manchin’s role came into sharper focus this week as Biden vowed to press for action on gun control following another mass shooting, this time in Colorado. Manchin and Biden had worked extensively on a package of gun measures following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. That package failed, and amounted to the last major legislative push for new gun restrictions.
          Now, Manchin will again prove decisive in the gun control debate. He said Tuesday he does not support background check legislation that recently passed in the House, placing him directly at odds with Biden’s wishes and underscoring a major divide among Democrats over how to tackle gun control — a key priority for their voters — even as the party now controls Congress and the White House.
          Manchin has also resisted doing away with the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for passing most pieces of legislation, further complicating efforts to enact new gun laws as well as measures protecting voting rights. He is the only Democratic senator to not sign onto a voting rights bill.
          “We got to work together here,” said Manchin, 73. “Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side, try to convince them, or work with them, just try to do. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”
          The Biden-Manchin relationship grew stronger during the 2013 debate over gun reforms, which became a central priority of the Obama administration. When the talks began breaking down, Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, came together with bipartisan legislation — with the help of Biden.
          During many conversations — Biden’s calls always came during office hours, never at night — the two talked extensively about the way forward. Biden would nudge Manchin about the legislation, but in a more fatherly way, a person familiar with the dynamic said, as Biden told him regrets about some of the steps he took in the 1994 crime bill.
          During those calls, Biden urged Manchin to hold fast on gun show provisions and don’t relent on internet sales of guns. And when some inside the Obama administration wanted to endorse the Manchin-Toomey provision, Manchin grew alarmed and called Biden to call off any such signs of support, fearful it would make it radioactive to Republicans.

          Far different moment

          Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., talks with then Vice President Joe Biden who conducted a mock swearing in ceremony in the Old Senate Chamber.

          Today, it is a far different moment, with Biden in the Oval Office and Manchin a centrist power center in the Senate. He is still representing the voters of West Virginia, where the gulf with the national Democratic Party is even wider than it was a decade ago.
          To admirers, he’s seen as confident. To critics, he’s seen as self-important. But already, Manchin has demonstrated a willingness to wield his outsized power in ways that force the White House to react.
          His Friday afternoon declaration in February that he could not support Biden’s budget chief nominee set off a scramble in the West Wing as aides worked to identify a potential Republican vote. After more than a week the nomination was withdrawn.
          Later, as Biden’s first major legislative initiative — the $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package — neared a final vote in the Senate, Manchin felt blindsided by an agreement Democrats reached to make some jobless benefits tax-free. He balked, stalling the bill’s progress for hours.
          After being lobbied by several of his Senate colleagues, Manchin ultimately received a phone call from Biden, who aides said was deliberately careful not to add pressure to the situation.
          Instead, the President chose to give Manchin space, listening to his concerns while underscoring the importance of passing the bill, a source with knowledge of the discussion said. Manchin, two sources said, was urged by the President to do what he thought was right — in essence to vote his conscience.
          It was a reflection of a relationship that multiple sources said has been in a solid place since Biden took office — Manchin of the mind that Biden is an honest broker, and Biden cognizant of the fact Manchin is his own senator and doesn’t take kindly to being jammed.
          Officials said the White House is in near-constant communication with Manchin or his office. And one close adviser told CNN that Manchin is keenly aware of what Biden’s red lines are.
          The two men never served together in the Senate. And their relationship only goes back a decade. But Manchin’s respect for Biden burns deeply, a person familiar with their relationship said, who credits much of their current vibe to those early phone calls after Manchin was elected in 2010.
          It was a devastating year for Democrats, with the party facing deep losses during the first midterm election of the Obama presidency. But Manchin was an exception, winning reelection and coming to the Senate eager to make deals — and be seen doing so.
          On the rare occasions Obama would call, Manchin would see the conversation as more of a lecture, two people familiar with the matter say. When Biden would call, it was a far gentler conversation with a purpose, with the vice president always asking: “Joe what are you thinking? Joe, what do you need?”
          In November 2013, Manchin invited Biden to deliver a keynote address at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in West Virginia.
            It was a night dedicated to celebrating the career of the state’s senior senator, Jay Rockefeller, but Manchin controlled the levers of the Democratic Party and told associates at the time that Biden was one of the few national Democratic figures he wanted to visit the state.
            “Joe and I have become pretty good friends,” Biden said, heaping praise on Manchin, who first rose to prominence in the state as a star football player. “Joe can take a hit and Joe can also give a hit.”

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