Manchin makes his moves: Tweaking Biden and courting GOP

Manchin says he’s not deciding on anything until the end of the year and is also pointedly refusing to rule out a presidential run on a third-party ticket. That gives him roughly nine more months to keep Washington guessing. In the meantime, he’ll keep exerting his political leverage, at least until he runs and Republicans start to limit his opportunities or a retirement announcement saps his Senate sway.

And the West Virginian is well aware of the limited window to maximize his current role as the GOP’s best bipartisan dealmaking partner and the Senate Energy Committee chair. On Friday morning he conveyed that his committee will not move forward with Interior nominee Laura Daniel-Davis. That came on the heels of opposition this week to Biden’s proposed IRS commissioner and a decisive blow to the nomination of an FCC commissioner.

“If you can’t do the job the last two years because you’re in cycle, that tells you what’s wrong with this place. That’s why I haven’t made any commitment or a decision,” Manchin said in an interview this week.

Manchin summed up his pugnacious approach to Biden nominees on Friday morning, declaring that “going forward, each and every proposed nominee I will review will be judged through one prism: Are they political partisans first or Americans first?” in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.

It seems not a day goes by without Manchin tweaking the Biden administration over something. He thrashed the president’s team Wednesday for “putting their radical climate agenda ahead of our nation’s energy security” then on Thursday said White House advisor John Podesta was “irresponsible” in comments about Chinese energy production.

In his typical style, Manchin says none of those moves have anything to do with his reelection decision.

“I’m just trying to do the right thing. I’m just trying to get things implemented. The country desperately needs energy security,” Manchin said. “And if you can’t implement a bill that basically is all about national security … it’s bullshit.”

There’s also a critical new ingredient to his legislative success in the newly empowered House GOP. Manchin spent the first two years of Biden’s presidency cutting deals with more liberal Democrats, only to get kneecapped by Senate Republicans on his final push for an energy permitting deal.

Yet for the moment, the House Republican majority is staying open to collaboration with Manchin on the topic, regardless of his political future — as long as any cross-Capitol compromise delivers a win for them, too.

“There’s a lot of motivation all around for us to do something on permitting reform,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), who is so devoted to an energy deal that he turned down a spot on a more sought-after House committee to work on it.

Senate Democrats are similarly playing it cool when it comes to the parlor game of what Manchin might be thinking about 2024. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the party’s campaign arm, said he’d had conversations with Manchin about running again but is taking a light touch.

“He has time. It’s not like we have a lot of Democrats wanting to run in West Virginia. And if he decides to run, I am confident he will win,” Peters said.

Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) is already running for the seat, but Republicans are also looking to land West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice in their primary. They see the Democrat-turned-Republican as the strongest possible recruit to force Manchin into retirement.

“It would certainly make me think twice, if I was in his shoes,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Amid the political intrigue, House Republicans are downright buoyant about their chances of reaching a Manchin-blessed deal on energy permitting that would help speed the way for construction of major fossil-fuel and other projects. It helps that the genial West Virginian has personally spoken with nearly every major House player on the issue, from Speaker Kevin McCarthy to GOP panel chairs to the Democrats who are quietly supportive of his push.

Several House Republicans who’ve spoken with Manchin said they’ve given little thought to what he — the pivotal vote on some of Biden’s biggest wins — will choose to do next year. The same goes for whether a bipartisan permitting agreement could help him achieve it.

Natural Resources Committee Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) spoke to Manchin this week, and Westerman said each is committed to getting a result. Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) brushed aside potential GOP concerns that a deal could help lift Manchin to reelection: “My goal is to get a substantial permitting bill on the president’s desk.”

Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.), whose GOP colleague Mooney is running for that Senate seat next year, said of Manchin: “I would work with anyone on permitting.”

Senate Republicans are more committed to defeating Manchin because West Virginia could easily determine who holds the Senate majority next year. They blocked attempts at attaching permitting legislation to year-end spending deals last year, in part out of retribution for Manchin’s dealmaking with Biden on Democrats’ massive party-line tax, health care and climate bill.

Now they’re questioning whether the rest of Manchin’s party would really follow him on a sweeping energy permitting deal with the House GOP.

“I do believe I can make a deal with Manchin. I’m not sure how many other Democrats would come on board,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, his Republican counterpart on the Energy Committee.

Manchin said Democrats would “be hypocritical” to shun work on an energy bill just because it’s led by the GOP House. He called his work last year a “roadmap” for Republicans to follow; 40 Senate Democratic caucus members supported his bill last year.

And he’s putting out feelers of his own. As Republicans steer their party-line energy package to the floor this month, Manchin has asked some of his House Democratic colleagues about the GOP’s plans.

“He said, ‘Let me know what the Republicans are looking at, because I want to do something,’” said Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, another conservative Democrat who’s been talking to the GOP on energy.

Asked how he’s reading the tea leaves on Manchin’s fate in 2024, Cuellar replied: “He wants to legislate.”

Still, Manchin isn’t totally tuned out of politics. He inquired about where his fellow red-state Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana stood in the lead-up to announcing a reelection bid.

But now, as Manchin wreaks havoc on the Biden administration, Tester has no plans to push Manchin on 2024.

“Joe being Joe, it’s just what Joe does,” Tester said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t.”