Joe Manchin tanked the centerpiece of Biden's domestic agenda. Who is the coal country senator?

Ledyard King
USA TODAY
  • Joe Manchin grew up in Fairmont, W.Va. His current Senate term runs through 2024.
  • For months, Manchin has expressed his reservations about the size and scope of Build Back Better.
  • Manchin is influential because the Senate is split 50-50, with VP Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker.

WASHINGTON – Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who emerged as a pivotal vote in the 50-50 Senate this year, has likely ended President Joe Biden's months-long effort to expand social safety net and climate change programs.

Manchin's announcement Sunday on Fox News that he cannot support the nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better bill the House passed last month appears to have signaled the end of the line for a once-in-a-generation measure progressives were pushing.

But Manchin, a moderate who has long decried the growing national debt and rising inflation, said he could not support a bill he said spends money the federal government doesn't have.

"I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't. I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there," Manchin said. "This is a no."

So, who is Joe Manchin?

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key holdout vote on President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Oct. 27, 2021.

Where is Joe Manchin originally from?

Manchin, 74, grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., near the coal mines that would help define his appreciation for working-class residents.

He's held just about every elective office in West Virginia: state delegate, state senator, secretary of state, governor and now U.S. senator. He lost the 1996 gubernatorial primary but revived his political career four years later after patching frayed relations with the state's unions.

He became a senator after winning a special election in 2010 to succeed legendary Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd. His current term is up in 2024. He's been one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus and was mentioned as a possible Energy secretary under GOP President Donald Trump.

Build Back Better and the climate change provisions that would aggressively shift the economy from fossil fuels to clean energy was already going to be a hard sell to a senator who hails from a state known for producing coal and natural gas.

Manchin was able to remove from the bill a provision punishing utilities that did not transition fast enough to clean energy sources, but there still remained billions in the legislation to expand the number of electric vehicle charging stations, incentivize states to ween off fossil fuels, and create a new Civilian Climate Corps.

More:Biden's Build Back Better bill would give young people jobs to fight climate change. What would a new CCC look like?

There was also money to convert as may as 165,000 U.S. Postal Service trucks – the largest fleet in the nation – to a largely electric-powered operation.

All of that would have made the coal and natural gas so central to West Virginia's economy and identity less important.

Manchin's opposition is not a surprise

For months, Manchin has expressed his reservations about the size and scope of the bill which would provide free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, cap certain drug costs, boost Pell grants for college tuition, expand family leave and provide a new benefit to care for seniors' hearing.

In September, his opposition to what was then the bill's price tag of $3.5 trillion forced Biden and congressional Democrats to cut the bill in half.

In November:House passes Biden’s Build Back Better bill, sending measure with free preschool, climate initiatives to the Senate

"The nation faces an unprecedented array of challenges and will inevitably encounter additional crises in the future," Manchin wrote at the time in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. "Yet some in Congress have a strange belief there is an infinite supply of money to deal with any current or future crisis, and that spending trillions upon trillions will have no negative consequence for the future."

Even after the reduction, he still wasn't on board.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., says he tried "everything humanly possible," but he can't support President Joe Biden's social spending legislation.

More:Biden's Build Back Better bill would add to national debt, congressional estimate says

"How can I in good conscience vote for a bill that proposes massive expansion of social programs when vital programs like Social Security and Medicare face insolvency and benefits can start being reduced as soon as 2026 and Medicare and 2033 in Social Security?" he said in November. "Does that make sense?"

Lately, he had been meeting with Biden to discuss how they could solve their differences, but they were never able to bridge the divide.

Why Manchin wields so much power

Manchin's influence comes down to simple math: a 50-50 Senate where a single Democrat can shape – or kill – big legislation.

Democrats control the chamber by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris, who also serves as the president of the Senate and can vote to break ties. But Harris' ability to cast the deciding vote only comes into play if the chamber locked at 50-50 on a vote.

In the case of Build Back Better, no Manchin, no tie-breaking vote from Harris.

More:Democrat dust-up over infrastructure underscores Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema's hold on Biden's agenda

Manchin isn't the only skeptical Democrat who stalled consideration of Build Back Better. Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema had also wavered on passage over concerns about its size and the prescription drug pricing proposal contained in it.

But the dynamics of the Senate mean that priorities pushed by liberals hinge upon the support of a moderate who represents a state Trump won by 41 points.

Negotiations with Biden, then Manchin's 'reversal

The first concrete sign that Manchin wouldn't budge came Thursday, when Biden acknowledged that his sweeping social spending and climate policy legislation is unlikely to pass before the end of the year.

Biden said in a statement that more time is needed to finalize agreements, turn those deals into legislative language and complete other procedural steps. But he was optimistic that differences with Manchin could be bridged.

More:Joe Manchin suddenly seems to influence everything Washington does. The West Virginia senator says he wants to make Congress ‘work again’

That optimism turned out to be short-lived.

Even so, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration would keep working to get Manchin's support.

"Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word," Psaki said in a statement Sunday.