Joe Manchin is already flexing his muscle... sort of

On the day that the Georgia Senate race was declared for Jon Ossoff, I went on social media to make what seemed like a fairly obvious prediction. With the language cleaned up a bit, I basically said that for the next two years, Joe Manchin would be able to get pretty much anything he wanted and Chuck Schumer would be kissing his butt on such a regular basis that he’d probably develop blisters. I’m sure most of you know why. Manchin remains the most moderate or occasionally conservative Senator among the Democrats and he’s the most likely to stray from the pack when it comes time to vote. With a 50-50 split in the upper chamber, Schumer can’t afford to lose a single vote on any divisive issues and Manchin will be able to singlehandedly derail any part of the Democrats’ agenda he doesn’t care for.

We saw the first signs of that phenomenon cropping up this week before the new majority even had a chance to be seated. Joe Biden joined Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in declaring his support for yet another pandemic relief package after the inauguration, including the $2,000 checks for all Americans that (ironically) President Trump had been pushing for. Joe Manchin quickly threw cold water on the idea, saying he “absolutely” would oppose such a measure. But he seemed to reconsider his position pretty quickly. (Yahoo News)

Biden began laying out his framework for the next round of COVID-19 relief, reports The Washington Post, and said his plans include a multi-trillion-dollar package that would provide “more direct relief flowing to families, small businesses,” in part via $2,000 stimulus checks.

But Manchin, who Axios notes will become an increasingly important player as a moderate in the Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority, seemed taken aback by Biden’s promise. “I don’t know where in the hell $2,000 came from. I swear to God I don’t,” he said. “That’s another $400 billion dollars.” Since Republicans are united in opposing larger checks, resistance from a single Democrat could throw a wrench in Biden’s plans.

He told the Post he would “absolutely not” support larger stimulus checks for Americans, but a spokesperson later seemed to walk back his resistance, insisting Manchin “isn’t drawing a red line against” $2,000 checks.

So how did Manchin go from “absolutely not” to “we need to take care of vaccine distribution first” so quickly? When news of his comments broke, the stock market almost immediately began to tank. Wall Street loves to see “free money” from the government being splashed around and the threat to cancel another round of checks sent a shiver through the New York Stock Exchange. That appeared to catch Manchin’s attention and one of his spokespeople was quickly dispatched to do some damage control.

Make no mistake, this was definitely a reversal of position, at least partially. In his initial statement, Manchin specifically called out the cost of another relief bill with checks of that size as the source of his objections. Now he’s signaling that he might be open to it after the vaccine distribution fiasco is worked out. But even then, he suggested that any third round of checks should be targeted to those who are most in need.

It’s something of a rare day when I get the opportunity to agree with any policy proposals from the Senate Democrats, but Manchin is probably on to something here. It’s pretty obvious that nobody from either party is suddenly going to start worrying about the insane rate at which we’re blowing up the deficit and the national debt. I mean, what’s a couple more trillion dollars in red ink in 2021 at this point, right?

But if we’re going to continue doling out checks, we could at least stem some of the bleeding and be more effective if the money went to those who have been directly impacted by both the virus and the government’s response to it. I feel extraordinarily blessed and fortunate to still be employed after this national calamity and I would be fine with not getting another check if the money was going to someone who had lost their livelihood to the government shutdowns or was sidelined as a result of contracting the virus.

The problem with any such plan that’s been considered since the start of the pandemic, however, is figuring out how you determine who does or doesn’t qualify. I suppose it would be possible to just compile all of the unemployment rolls, but that would take quite the concerted effort since that information is kept by the states. Also, you’d miss a lot of people who were either out of the employment market or working in jobs that don’t qualify for unemployment, such as gig economy workers. Thus far, the only solution that Congress has come up with is to throw up their hands and just send a check to every adult. Unless Manchin has a specific plan for solving that riddle, he’ll probably be forced to accept the idea of checks for everyone.

Even if Joe Manchin winds up backing down on this battle, it definitely won’t be the last such standoff we see. A look at his voting record shows that he splits with the party fairly often, though that usually didn’t matter when the Republicans were in charge. Now, every far-left agenda item from Biden’s wish list will have to have Manchin’s seal of approval before Schumer can schedule a vote. It’s rather ironic, but a West Virginia Democrat may turn out to be conservatism’s only champion for at least the next two years.