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Joe Manchin Actually Has a Lot Riding on the Infrastructure Bill’s Passage

Underlying progressives’ surrender to Joe Manchin is the assumption that the West Virginia coal baron is happy to walk away with nothing. But Manchin angering West Virginia voters, GOP officials, businesses, and his campaign donors would hurt him badly.

Senator Joe Manchin at a news conference on the reconciliation bill at the Capitol on November 1, 2021. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It’s November and the best-laid plans of congressional progressives are crumbling before their eyes.

With Senator Joe Manchin threatening to walk away and leave both parts of Joe Biden’s infrastructure agenda dead on the floor, the White House and progressives have repeatedly capitulated to the West Virginia coal baron’s demands. First, they agreed on a flurry of cuts that halved the price tag of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, eliminating virtually all of its most popular, meaningful measures. Now, with Manchin hinting at continued opposition on Monday, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Representative Pramila Jayapal has suggested progressives will renege on another red line and pass the bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) in the House, decoupling it from the larger bill being assailed by Manchin — and giving up their main point of leverage in the process.

Underlying all this has been one core assumption: that Manchin, who seems driven mostly by personal enrichment and corporate campaign donations, would happily walk away from the whole process with “zero,” as he reportedly told Bernie Sanders behind closed doors. But what if that wasn’t true?

Belying Manchin’s threats is a desire to get the BIF passed, something that’s repeatedly slipped through in his messaging. “We should just pass the infrastructure bill and, you know, pause for six months,” he reportedly said shortly after threatening Sanders. Central to his high-profile Monday announcement was a demand that the House hold an up-or-down vote on the bill immediately. A week earlier, Manchin had again told reporters that “we owe it to the president to move forward, take a vote on the infrastructure bill.”

It’s easy to understand why. If corporate interests explain Manchin’s opposition to reconciliation, they also underwrite his need to pass the BIF. And it suggests Manchin might have a lot more to lose from a game of brinkmanship that torpedoes the bill than he’s publicly letting on.

A State Desperate for Aid

West Virginia has long suffered from underinvestment in core physical infrastructure. Last December, it got no less than five “D” grades from the American Society of Civil Engineers, with the shrinking, cash-poor state needing upwards of $5 billion to bring it up to scratch, from roads and bridges to dams and water quality.

This situation has an obvious impact on the quality of life for people who live in the state, but it’s also a profound drag on its private sector, from airlines and the tourism industry it relies on, to the businesses whose supply chains and services depend on reliable transportation, and all of which need a dependable workforce that wants to live and work in the state. An August survey shows large majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all back the BIF that would help fix this state of affairs.

Little wonder then that much of West Virginia’s political establishment is enthusiastically behind the BIF. Republican governor Jim Justice has called the bill “unbelievably important” and said that he has “more wishes and hopes than I have concerns” about it. Same goes for down-ballot officials, like Republican Mercer County commissioner Greg Puckett, who doubles as the chair of the National Association of Counties Rural Action Caucus.

He’s said the state’s infrastructure problems have left it at a “great disadvantage” and that the bill would “make us more competitive not only on a national scale but on a global scale.” (Justice and Puckett had also backed the larger reconciliation bill). Legislators have long been especially desperate to fix the state’s dire high-speed internet access, which ranks forty-eighth in the nation.

“Any kind of help federally that we can get to, to help West Virginia, then that is going to help us transition from the downward spiral to drawing more people into our population,” Republican state senator Rollan Roberts told Reuters in April, adding that broadband funding would aid the state’s “survival.” (The BIF would give the state at least $100 million to ensure broadband coverage).

So politically beneficial is the bill that this coalition includes Manchin’s counterpart, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, one of the country’s most pro-Trump Republicans. Despite her history as a deficit hawk, and despite her own leader’s public vow to block Biden’s agenda, Capito took a leading role in working with the White House to craft and push the bill forward earlier this year, citing the “great need in West Virginia” for infrastructure improvements.

So it’s little surprise Manchin has made every effort to take credit for the bill, too. In videos and press releases, he’s labeled it his infrastructure bill, and has called the bill a “historical investment in America’s infrastructure, one so monumental and unlike anything we’ve seen in over thirty years.” In an August op-ed widely reprinted in the state’s local press, Manchin detailed the benefits of the legislation, which he said “delivers for West Virginians.”

The full-throated, across-the-board support within the state for the BIF calls into question Manchin’s relaxed public posture toward walking away with nothing. Delivering its benefits would be key for a politician who’s flirting with running for another Senate term in the state, or even another shot at the governor’s mansion. On the other hand, being seen within the state to have jeopardized it by playing a high-stakes game of chicken could have serious ramifications for any future run.

Building Back for Business

Some of Manchin’s critics might counter that this is all irrelevant, because voters aren’t his real constituency — it’s state and national business groups. But these quarters are similarly eager to get the BIF passed, too.

In West Virginia, the bill has been endorsed by the state’s Chamber of Commerce, whose president has called it a “very, very high priority” and said its funding is needed for the state’s private sector “to conduct commerce.” The executive director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia has similarly touted the importance to the state’s “economic future” of the bill’s funding for the “safety, security, and stability of our roads and bridges.”

Some of the BIF’s major corporate backers also happen to be donors to Manchin. First among them is the US Chamber of Commerce, which has loudly and consistently backed the bill, owing to its benefits to business.

“This is overdue promises,” Suzanne Clark, its president and CEO told the local press in September. “We’ve been trying to get this done at the US Chamber for over a decade, we’re really proud of getting it over the finish line. We are anxious to get the House to pass it and get it on the president’s desk.”

Manchin and Clark appeared together at the state’s annual business summit, where Manchin spoke at a segment titled “Chambers of Commerce Shaping National Policy.” The US Chamber has previously given Manchin its “Spirit of Free Enterprise” award for voting in accordance with its priorities more than 70 percent of the time, and donated $2,500 to his campaign earlier this year.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which has pointed to the pandemic-inspired supply chain shocks as for why the BIF’s passage is so desperately needed by its members, gave Manchin the same amount this year. The National Association of Manufacturers, another big business group backing the bill, donated $2,500 to Manchin over 2019 and 2020.

In July, more than a hundred forty executives signed a letter “urging rapid passage” of the “desperately needed” BIF. Six executives and two PACs representing eight of the companies listed have given Manchin a total of $24,200 this year, including Blackstone, Apollo Global Management, Lazard, Trian Partners, and Centerview Partners. (The high number of finance firms is likely owing to the bill’s Wall Street–backed provision for privatizing infrastructure).

PACs for United Airlines and Morgan Stanley also gave thousands each to Manchin in 2020 and 2019, respectively, years that saw the S&P Global Inc. PAC and a Guardian Life Insurance partner and senior associate give him a total of $4,500 — all firms that appear on the letter.

Special mention goes to one company in particular: Virgin Hyperloop, a subsidiary of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group devoted to developing a transport system it claims can shuttle passengers in a near-vacuum at up to 670 mph.

Last year the company chose West Virginia out of seventeen states to host its certification center and test track, a major public announcement that Manchin, Capito, and Justice all eagerly attended. (Two of the company’s executives donated $3,300 to Manchin shortly after that announcement).

Manchin has fought for the project since 2019, meeting with its leadership and writing a letter supporting their move to the state. Much to the company’s delight, funding and government support for the project happens to have been included in the BIF, at no small expense to them: filings show that over the last three quarters, Virgin Hyperloop has spent a total of $480,000 so far lobbying on funding for and regulation of the project, including specifically on the legislation that ended up being rolled into the BIF.

There’s also something personal at stake for Manchin: the bill hands out $1 billion to the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federally funded economic development partnership Manchin’s wife was appointed by Biden to cochair. This is particularly ironic, given Manchin’s complaint that the original $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill he hacked to pieces would’ve created an “entitlement mentality.”

So not only are large, small, and state-based businesses reliant on the BIF passing, a number of them donors to Manchin’s campaigns, but ventures personally linked to him will financially benefit from its passage — or, if it fails, lose out.

Poker or Kamikaze?

As progressives weigh whether to back Jayapal’s plan to give up their leverage — or even pull a Manchin and walk away entirely, given that he’s gone so far in eviscerating the reconciliation bill he’s arguably given up his own — they have a question to ask: Is Manchin truly willing to face backlash from voters, politicians, donors, and businesses (not to mention give up free money) by walking away and failing to deliver on infrastructure? Or is he in the middle of a high-wire act, counting on progressives not to stand firm and to capitulate to his bluff as usual?

John Kilwein, political science professor at West Virginia University, isn’t 100 percent sure either. Earlier this year, as Capito furiously worked to make the infrastructure bill a reality, Kilwein had warned: “She has to be careful, because she can’t do the traditional Republican ‘We can’t afford it and walk away’ [approach], because enough West Virginians would benefit from this.”

Asked yesterday if that still applies, in this case to Manchin, he said that things may have changed since then. Manchin’s opposition has been so “prominent and adamant,” says Kilwein, he could be pursuing a delicate strategy of trying to overcome his slim 2018 winning margin by appealing to enough Republicans to make up for the Democratic voters he’s alienating right now.

“I still think it’s a poker ploy,” he says. “And if it does break down, he can say it’s due to progressives.”

It’s a question progressives will have to consider now. Squad members have said any concessions are possible thanks to the Democrats’ slim House majority and talked about using their leverage to secure their priorities. Before they give that leverage away, they should remember they’re not the only ones with plenty of chips on the table.