Manchin retreats: I did offer to leave caucus -- if it helped Schumer

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

A curious walkback from the King of Washington DC, who proclaimed the Mother Jones scoop on a potential party-ID change “bulls*** — capital B-U-L-L.” Joe Manchin is now telling a different story, CBS News notes. David Corn’s reporting on discussions over a potential party-ID switch was at least partly correct, but Manchin had a different purpose in mind:

He was asked by reporters at the Capitol about a report that he had threatened to leave the party if his demands weren’t met on the social spending bill under negotiation by moderate and progressive Democrats.

“No,” he said. But he disclosed a conversation in which he said that if he were ever “an embarrassment” to Democratic colleagues and the president, if “me being a moderate centrist Democrat if that causes you a problem, let me know, and I’d switch to be an independent, but I’d still be caucusing with Democrats.”

“That’s the only thing was ever discussed. No one accepted that, and I just said, ‘I’ll make that offer, if you need it,'” Manchin said, and he told reporters that his offer was “not accepted.” He denied that it was the confrontation portrayed by Mother Jones’ David Corn earlier this week.

So Corn was correct that the discussions took place, even if he may have either mistaken or mischaracterized the intent. This makes more sense than Corn’s reporting on Manchin’s plans, too. Corn had originally said that Manchin would resign from caucus leadership and then the caucus in protest over the reconciliation package but might not join the Republican caucus in that instance:

He told associates that he has a two-step plan for exiting the party. First, he would send a letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, removing himself from the Democratic leadership of the Senate. (He is vice chair of the Senate Democrats’ policy and communications committee.) Manchin hopes that would send a signal. He would then wait and see if that move had any impact on the negotiations. After about a week, he said, he would change his voter registration from Democrat to independent.

It is unclear whether in this scenario Manchin would end up caucusing with the Democrats, which would allow them to continue to control the Senate, or side with the Republicans and place the Senate in GOP hands.

This made absolutely no sense at all at the time. Why would Manchin quit leadership and the caucus without flipping to the GOP? That would eliminate Manchin from practically any influence in the Senate save for his vote on the floor. Schumer would have booted him from his committee assignments, and Mitch McConnell would hardly have made room for Manchin on the GOP side without getting control from a Manchin flip.

Manchin’s explanation makes at least some sense, but it also undermines his “bulls***” denial yesterday, at least a little. It’s tough to see how resigning his place in Senate leadership would help Schumer out much, or that it’s an “embarrassment” in any sense while Joe Biden’s on stage. Such a move would undercut his best re-election argument — that his seniority and influence on Democrats is worth keeping him in the Senate.

Either way, why not just offer this explanation yesterday?

At any rate, Manchin’s not the one who apparently “embarrasses” Schumer and party leadership. That’s on Kyrsten Sinema, according to CNN:

Sinema is not the only Democrat who has infuriated the left. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has refused to go along with many Democratic priorities — such as generous paid family and medical leave policies, aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — opening him to constant criticism from liberals in Congress and activists across the country.

Yet Sinema’s handling of the situation is markedly different. For months, she has operated in near secrecy, privately holding conversations with the White House about her concerns. She has provided little information to fellow Democrats, other than Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, whereas Manchin has engaged directly with lawmakers and even spent Tuesday at a caucus lunch fielding a barrage of questions and hearing concerns from his Democratic colleagues. Sinema skipped the lunch, meeting with White House officials instead.

“There is a sense in which we no longer live in a democracy; we live under the tyranny of Kyrsten Sinema,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres, a progressive New York freshman. “I welcome the ideological diversity of the party. I can live with dissent. My colleagues and I have trouble living with what we perceive to be erraticism. The perception of erraticism is brought on by a lack of communication and clarity for where she stands.”

A spokesman for Sinema declined to comment. But aides have noted that she has been clear about her positions with Schumer and Biden since August.

There’s a chance that Sinema might bolt Schumer’s caucus, too, albeit a somewhat remote possibility. With progressives revving up a primary challenge to Sinema from Ruben Gallego and Democrats now going on the record to slag her publicly, Sinema might decide to make a strategic flip to the GOP and gain even more support from Arizona Republicans.

Of course, that assumes the GOP would agree to make room for her in 2024 in exchange for taking control of the Senate chamber now, and control might be more headache than it’s worth for Mitch McConnell anyway. The status quo serves him just fine, where Democrats are completely in charge and utterly incompetent to get anything done at all. Other than blocking radical legislation — which he can do already — and Biden’s worst nominees (a considerable plus to be sure), what does McConnell gain in taking on responsibility for joint governance with Nancy Pelosi and Biden? It’s better under the circumstances to get through to the midterms and win control as a referendum on Democratic collapse.

It suuuuure looks like McConnell and the GOP will have that argument well in hand a year from now.