Party lines invisible to Sen. Manchin of West Virginia
By Salena Zito
Published: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 10:10 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Joe Manchin didn't set out to become a Senate power broker when he arrived in Washington in 2010.
Yet he is suddenly that.
People outside his home state of West Virginia are talking about the Democrat who doesn't follow party lines, and his ability to get colleagues to sign on to legislation, including a bill that likely pressured the White House to change its response to the Affordable Care Act.
“I don't have all of the ideas, but I have a few,” Manchin, 66, told the Tribune-Review. “I am not always right, but I am not always wrong, either. I think with that approach, I can fix things.”
Bowing to criticism from millions of Americans who received cancellation notices for individual insurance policies since the law went online in October, President Obama on Thursday said consumers can keep plans that don't meet requirements for one more year.
His proposed fix — to delay requiring that insurers end policies that don't meet minimum coverage standards — is not enough, Manchin said.
He will keep pushing legislation he co-sponsored with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to reinstate any canceled policies.
“Our fix is permanent; the president's is temporary,” Manchin said.
‘A very likable guy'
It's not the first time the plain-speaking former governor emerged in an unlikely Senate leadership role.
In April, his national standing soared when he forged a compromise bill with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Lehigh County to expand background checks for gun purchases to online sales. The bill did not pass, but Manchin — who famously shot a hole through Obama's cap-and-trade bill in a TV campaign ad — gained notice.
In July, the Senate passed his bipartisan student loan bill, which cut rates for the year and based them on Treasury bonds instead of a fixed number, despite pushback from progressive Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Two months later, experts credited his proposed resolution to give President Bashar al-Assad 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban with cooling the White House at the height of the Obama administration's push for military action in Syria.
And Manchin was the guy who cut a deal with Fisher House Foundation, a veterans charitable organization, to help pay death benefits to families of fallen troops when the government shutdown in October halted payments.
Toomey said Manchin is “in the center of a lot of important issues” because he wants to get things done and “is willing to break with his party orthodoxy to do that.”
Manchin has won the trust and confidence of Senate colleagues, Toomey said: “He is a very likable guy. He is not faking it when he tries to bridge issues. … Personalities matter in the Senate, and his is definitely conducive to making progress.”
Manchin has no patience for critics who attack him or others for crossing party lines.
“I could give two hoots about that,” he said. “The bottom line is the extremes on the right and left are trying to control the dialogue and the policy, and if we let that happen, God help us now.”
Wild, wonderful W.Va.
Manchin grew up in Farmington , W.Va., a town of fewer than 400 people best known for its 1968 coal mine disaster that killed 78 miners. The grandson of Italian and Czechoslovakian immigrants who own grocery stores, he and his wife, Gayle, live in Fairmont. His uncle, the late A. James Manchin, was a colorful politician in the state House of Delegates and its secretary of State and treasurer.
“I love my home state,” Manchin said. “There is no other place like it in the world, and it is where I am at home.”
When governor, he advocated returning to the state motto “Wild, Wonderful West Virginia” when people hated his “Open for Business” slogan.
When he is home, he likes to fish for trout and learned to fly-fish a year ago.
He keeps moonshine — the legal kind — in his office to offer during after-hours toasts.
His Capitol Hill suite is reminiscent of the office of a popular school principal, not a button-down shirt-wearing elected official.
A football scholarship got Manchin into West Virginia University, but an injury during practice ended his playing days. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in information management. In 1982, at 35, he was elected to the Legislature.
He took the seat of Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving U.S. senator, in a special election after Byrd's death, and he won a full term two years later.
On a recent Wednesday, staffers put out a spread of doughnuts, muffins, pastries and coffee to welcome any West Virginian who wanted to drop by. More than 50 constituents came to chat, including actress Jennifer Garner, who lived in the state capital, Charleston, in her youth.
He talked via Skype to an honors American history class in Shinnston, W.Va., and promised to visit Lincoln High School sometime.
Not every West Virginian is a fan.
Melody Potter, 58, of South Charleston, the state's Republican national committeewoman, doesn't trust that Manchin is as conservative as he projects.
“He won the Senate seat because he tells people what they want to hear, but his actions are contradictory,” Potter said, citing cap-and-trade legislation he signed in 2009 as governor. “I believe that most of what he does is for his own political gain.”
Hoping for Hillary
On the underground train ride from Hart Office Building to the U.S. Capitol, Manchin takes credit for another policy change.
“See this?” He points to “No Running” signs on the electric people movers. “This is my fault,” he said, explaining that he often ran alongside the train to its next stop if he missed his ride.
The Washington press corps mobs him at the Capitol, thrusting recorders as reporters ask his opinion of Obama and his delaying his signature health care law.
No one knew him for the first year or so, Manchin said. That changed when his frustration with divisive politicians inspired him to cross the aisle.
“They put you on the spot; you say one wrong word, and they crucify you,” he said of the reporters, once the scrum was out of earshot. “Sometimes you can't even go to the bathroom.”
When he steps off an elevator moments later, more questions and flashbulbs greet him.
Though he breaks ranks with ease in the Senate, he will support his party's presidential nominee in 2016 and hopes it will be Hillary Clinton, a friend since he was a state senator.
She might reverse West Virginia's recent trend of voting Republican for president, Manchin said.
“I can't make people change their minds on social issues, but if she runs on governing and performance and her ability to reach out and get things accomplished, she will win West Virginia,” he said.
He is less sure about his own ambitions for a presidential run.
“I can't say. I mean, you never know,” he said.
“I will help my country any possible way that I can. I really would,” he said, adding that his “burning desire is to be the best I can be to represent West Virginia. That is what drives me.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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