WASHINGTON — Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most conservative member of his party in the Senate, has a message for fellow Democrats hoping to capture the majority and quickly begin muscling through legislation to bring about sweeping, liberal change: not on his watch.
With Democrats mounting an intense, long-shot campaign to win two Georgia Senate seats whose fates will be decided in runoffs in January — a feat that would give them control of both chambers of Congress along with the presidency — Mr. Manchin’s unequivocal stance against ending the filibuster means that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. would still need substantial Republican support, and probably Mr. Manchin’s seal of approval, for any major move.
In a wide-ranging interview in his office, Mr. Manchin, 73, a former governor, argued that moderates in both parties needed to assert themselves in a new Senate, no matter which party is in charge. He said that his party had lost rural voters because of an ultraprogressive message that scared them, and he criticized Republicans for selling their “souls” in subservience to President Trump.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It strikes me that you’re going to be playing potentially an extremely important role if we end up with a 50-50 Senate. Would you agree with that?
A: I would think the only reason that people are assuming that — you can tell me if it’s true or not — is because of my independent voting. I’m pretty independent. If it makes sense, I go home and explain it. If it doesn’t make sense, I don’t. Sometimes that’s a real strong Democratic issue they’re really happy with, and sometimes it’s a Republican issue they’re happy with. I think I’m the most moderate or centrist — as far as centrist voting — than anybody else in Congress, 535 people.
Q: What do you make of the election results over all?
A: I just can’t believe that 72 million people were either that mad or that scared of the Democrat Party to vote for what I consider a very flawed individual. Here’s a person who lost 230,000 lives under his watch, basically denounced the science completely because it might hurt him politically, has a lack of compassion or empathy for humans, and denigrates anybody and everybody that does not agree with him. How 72 million people could still walk in and say, ‘Yeah, it’s better than that,’ I just can’t figure it out.
That was a sobering thing for me. My state got wiped out this election. So I would say, I’m just looking at myself, I have not been good at my message. I know why I’m a Democrat. And I know that I’ve never seen the Democrat Party forsake anybody.
Q: Why do you think West Virginia and the rural areas have gone so red?
A: I can tell you what they said: ‘Listen, I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for another Democrat that might give support to the very liberal wing in Washington that I don’t agree with and have nothing in common with. I don’t have anything in common with people who talk about defunding the police. It looks like they’re condoning riots.’ There’s not a member in the Democratic caucus that condones any of this violence or riots or looting. None.
I just would hope that people would start looking at the person that they’re voting for and not the party they belong to. A Democrat who’s a moderate-conservative like myself is much needed to bring other people to that moderate position.
Q: The Democratic Party thought it could take back the Senate this year, and there’s still a chance that maybe that can happen if you get both of the seats in Georgia. But in order to pass major legislation, you would have to either get some Republican support or kill the filibuster. You’ve long opposed killing the filibuster. Why is that?
A: I can assure you I will not vote to end the filibuster, because that would break the Senate. We’ve harmed the Senate enough with the nuclear option on the judges. We’re making lifetime appointments based on a simple majority. The minority should have input — that’s the whole purpose for the Senate. If you basically do away with the filibuster altogether for legislation, you won’t have the Senate. You’re a glorified House. And I will not do that.
Q: So there’s no issue where you would agree to end the filibuster? Let’s say there’s a badly needed new coronavirus stimulus package, and the Republicans won’t make a deal.
A: No. If we can’t come together to help America, God help us. If you’ve got to blow up the Senate to do the right thing, then we’ve got the wrong people in the Senate, or we have people that won’t talk to each other. You know, I’ve always said this: Chuck Schumer, with his personality, he’ll talk to anybody and everybody. You can work with Chuck. Chuck is going to try everything he can do to try to engage with Mitch again.
Q: Are there any other issues where you would draw a line in the sand and stand up to other members of your party?
A: I’ve done that. I was that one vote for Brett Kavanaugh. I thought there had to be evidence, and I never saw evidence. The country was in a feeding frenzy. And there was no Democrat that was going to buck that. I said, ‘I’m not going to ruin a person’s life because there’s no evidence.’
And wouldn’t it be so befitting if he votes to uphold the Affordable Care Act? God, oh my. Redemption! Is there redemption here? He and I had a long conversation, and I basically said, ‘I’m pleading with you and your inner conscience, whenever this comes before you, I want you to think about 800,000 West Virginians who couldn’t get insurance before because of a pre-existing condition. I want you to think about 160,000 West Virginians that were so poor, they had nothing.’
Q: It does seem like Democrats have won the argument on the Affordable Care Act. Six years ago, Republicans were campaigning on blowing up Obamacare; now they’re running ads saying they’re protecting pre-existing conditions.
A: Here’s the thing. It’s 16,000 jobs in West Virginia. Three million jobs in America. You want to be a vote that basically eliminates three million jobs? You want to be a vote that wipes out your state? It’s crazy.
Q: Is there any chance of a bipartisan group of moderates — you, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and some others — emerging that can advance compromise policy in a new Senate?
A: We used to have meetings all the time, either in here or her office. We had 10 or 12 or 13, sometimes as many as 20, working through the fiscal crisis or different things, trying to find a pathway forward. We need to be more vocal with our leadership.
Q: What does it mean to be a Democrat in 2020?
A: To me, it still means the compassion that we have for people, but also the dignity of work. That has to be our driver. It’s the economy, it’s all about the economy. You can’t help anybody if you have no economy and no resources to help them.
When it comes to workplace safety, it’s the Democrats everyone turns to because they know they’ll do something. When it comes time to protect people’s jobs and opportunities, it’s the Democrats who will fight to protect that. We’re trying to give quality health care, so people can basically contribute to society. With that, look at the economy that we created: a billion dollars coming in our state. We don’t say that, and we don’t seem to get credit for that.
So I’m back on track. I know why I’m here, and I know why I’m a Democrat, and I’m going to fight like the dickens.
Q: You did a video with a mix of Democrats and Republicans asking people to respect the results of the election. Why do you think that so many Republicans are unwilling to acknowledge reality and stand up and say, ‘You lost, Mr. President’?
A: I don’t know. I don’t know the value of being a U.S. senator, or a governor, or a congressman or anything that’s worth selling your soul or your convictions. These are all good people who for some reason aren’t speaking up. They’re hoping it just kind of goes away.
Why rouse up 70 million people that were willing to vote for all his flaws, knowing he’s a very flawed human being? He instilled something, the anger in people, feeling like, ‘Hey, I’m getting the shaft here, I’m getting shorted.’ So, they just want that to kind of go away and see if it calms down rather than putting themselves in the iron. And I understand that. But it would be so refreshing to have a majority of all of my colleagues and my friends on the Republican side say, ‘Listen. It’s time now to move on.’”
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