Sens. Joe Manchin, Shelley Capito Hold Keys To Major Democratic Priorities : Consider This from NPR Democratic proposals for immigration reform, gun control, infrastructure and voting rights are stalled in Congress. Standing in between Democrats and much of their progressive wish list is one of their own, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has signaled his opposition to eliminating the filibuster or passing an infrastructure plan without Republican support.

He's not the only West Virginian with an outsized influence in Washington right now. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito is representing Senate Republicans in negotiations with the White House over infrastructure. Despite meeting with President Biden repeatedly in recent days, the two sides appear to be far apart.

For more on the two Senators' role in national politics and what their mandate is from voters back home, congressional correspondent Sue Davis and Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting speak to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment
that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.


Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Democrats' Path To Big Legislation Runs Through West Virginia. Is It A Dead End?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1004021376/1004516165" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Right now, a lot of big Democratic ideas are running into partisan gridlock, ideas such as immigration reform, gun control and President Biden's massive infrastructure proposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

CHRIS WALLACE: Joining us now, the man in the middle on Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.

CORNISH: Standing in between President Joe Biden, his fellow Democrats and much of their progressive wish list is one of their own who's been called, quote, "the other Joe with veto power." West Virginia's Joe Manchin has repeatedly said he doesn't want to eliminate the Senate filibuster, which would allow Democrats to pass major legislation without Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

JOE MANCHIN: I don't want to be in a country that's divided any further than I'm in right now. I love my country, and I think my Democrat and Republican colleagues feel the same.

CORNISH: At least one other Democrat, Krysten Sinema of Arizona, also wants to keep the filibuster. In the meantime, just a few days ago, Manchin's latest blow to Democrats - he came out in opposition to a sweeping set of voting rights measures called the For the People Act. He was asked about that on "Fox News Sunday."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

MANCHIN: I think it's the wrong piece of legislation to bring our country together and unite our country. And I'm not supporting that because I think it would divide us further.

CORNISH: Manchin was not asked why he supported a similar version of the same bill back in 2019, when it also had no Republican support. Manchin is making his influence felt when it comes to Democrats' ambitious infrastructure plans as well, one of the few things they could hypothetically pass without Republicans under special Senate budget rules. And yet Manchin has signaled repeatedly he doesn't want to go that route either.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

WALLACE: And we think we can find a pathway forward. We're not that far apart.

CORNISH: It also happens that in negotiations over infrastructure, the senator representing Republicans at the table is West Virginia's other senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito. She's met with President Biden repeatedly, and things - reportedly - are going nowhere fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: I personally believe that the Republicans are not serious about anything that's significant.

CORNISH: Manchin's colleagues on the left? They're getting impatient. Here was Senator Bernie Sanders on MSNBC Monday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: These negotiations cannot go on and on and on.

CORNISH: But in Joe Manchin's view, this is exactly how the Senate is supposed to work - months and months of negotiations with something at the end that both sides can call a compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

MANCHIN: And I keep saying, let's continue to keep working with this. The Senate is working. So we're moving in the right direction.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - if you're wondering why anything is happening or not happening in Washington, D.C., look at West Virginia. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Tuesday, June 8.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. It's not just Democrats in Congress who want to move faster. On key items like infrastructure, the White House is also starting to signal that the window for negotiation is closing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: This has got to be done soon.

CORNISH: This week, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CNN that the House will start moving an infrastructure bill through committees on Wednesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRANHOLM: The president still has hope. Joe Manchin still has hope. We all have hope. But I can tell you the House will start their markup on Wednesday.

CORNISH: But even if a bill makes it through the House, things get trickier for Democrats in the Senate, where their majority is narrow. Joe Biden and Senator Shelley Moore Capito reportedly met again on Monday. Capito is someone who supported infrastructure legislation in the past and even once introduced a bill alongside Democratic Senator Cory Booker to invest in and train more water utility workers. But in terms of new infrastructure spending, the latest Republican offer Capito brought to the table was around $250 billion. And the president, well, he wants at least five times that. Both sides disagree on how it would be paid for. And any deal would need the support of 10 Republican senators

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Do I believe that we will have 10 Republican votes to do something significant for physical infrastructure, for climate, for human infrastructure, for health care, education? No, I don't.

CORNISH: Senator Bernie Sanders told MSNBC on Monday evening that he's preparing a massive infrastructure bill that Democrats could pass using reconciliation, that special Senate process that allows budget-related policy to be passed without Republican votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Which could combine both Biden's physical infrastructure plans as well as family planning, the human infrastructure as well.

CORNISH: But that would require all 50 Senate Democrats to sign on - and, again, Joe Manchin says he won't.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

MANCHIN: We need a bipartisan infrastructure bill. We most definitely need that. And infrastructure, something that's been delayed for far too long. And I think we can come to that compromise to where we'll find a bipartisan deal. I'm very, very confident of that.

CORNISH: All of this puts two senators from West Virginia - Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito - at the center of the biggest policy fights in D.C. Now, West Virginia, of course, population wise is small. Its population is slightly greater than the city ***

CORNISH: of Phoenix, Ariz. And in the past decade, West Virginia has lost a greater share of its population than any other state. In fact, for that reason, it was one of only seven states to lose a congressional seat following the 2020 census. So it is fair to say West Virginia and its two senators, Manchin and Capito, enjoy an outsized influence in national politics. We wanted to talk more about why and what their mandate is from their voters back home. So to do that, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke to our congressional correspondent Sue Davis and reporter Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CORNISH: Welcome to you both.

SUSAN DAVIS: Hey there.

DAVE MISTICH: Glad to be here.

CORNISH: Hey. So, Sue, you kick us off. Tell us a little bit more about Manchin, Capito - where they fit into each of their parties.

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, right now they're two of the most critical figures in the Congress and to the fate of the Biden agenda, whatever it may end up being. It's why they can barely walk down a hallway in the U.S. Capitol without being mobbed by reporters. I think it's fair to describe them both as moderates - I think both in terms of how they see themselves, the kind of policies they support and their temperaments. I mean, Manchin's always had a bit of a flashier personality on Capitol Hill, but these are not two people who have ever been seen as bomb-throwers. They have reputations of working across the aisle. And I would say, on a personal level, their Senate colleagues generally like them both very much.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Dave, are they generally liked very much at home, back home in West Virginia?

MISTICH: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. I mean, to describe them - I'll start with Manchin. As someone who grew up here, I can say that there's always been a distinction between a Washington Democrat and a West Virginia Democrat. That gap has seemed to widen over time as national Democrats have become more progressive. But Manchin, he's planted himself in the middle as a moderate, almost conservative in his point of view. West Virginia progressives are understandably frustrated with that. So Democrats here are split on him. But the way the state looks as a whole, I think that kind of keeps him safe.

On a lot of complicated issues, like this voting rights legislation, he doesn't necessarily reflect the view of most or all of the Democratic Party, but his views are reflective of most of the rest of the state of West Virginia. He's a unique character who's always been a force here in politics. And whether people believe him or not, more than anything else, he seems very committed to not having one party being in control.

KELLY: How about Senator Capito?

MISTICH: That's right. And she's slightly different. When January 6 happened, she was really quick to put the blame on then-President Trump. And, you know, leading up to that event, she knows that Trump is really popular here. But, you know, I got to say that she hedges what she says. You know, she tries to be realistic about how much support he has here but also be realistic about the realities of that administration and the rhetoric that came from it. That position has seemed to serve her really well. For example, you know, Manchin had a progressive primary challenger in 2018 who got 30% of the vote in that election, and to be honest, that's seemingly unthinkable for Senator Capito. There's more unification around her among Republicans here.

KELLY: And just quickly, what is their relationship like? 'Cause they go way back. I think I read that they first met when he came out to measure carpet (laughter) for her house. This is back in the '70s.

MISTICH: Right. I mean, I think it's fair to say that, you know, there's a genuine respect with them. They've known each other for decades, of course. And the two of them are genuinely friends. You know, they worked together when Republicans controlled Congress under President Trump, and now that Democrats hold Congress, Manchin wants her to play a role, too. He said that he supports her efforts to reach an infrastructure deal with President Biden.

KELLY: All right, Sue, back to the position they occupy in Washington, the unique position of power in relationship to President Biden's agenda for each of them.

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, part of this is by design; part of this is just the fate and effect of elections. Capito is the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee. That, by design, gives her infrastructure as her lane, as her expertise. In terms of the power equation, she's also a top ally and a counselor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. So when she's at the negotiating table, there's an implication here that she has the support of the leadership behind her. And that could be powerful towards cutting a deal and bringing Republicans along.

With Manchin, it's really, honestly just more about math and the realities of this 50-50 Senate. If Democrats had three, four, five more seats, his swing vote would not be the cause of so much speculation and attention right now, but that political reality has given him a tremendous amount of power. And as he has outlined in that op-ed, he is willing to use it in ways that might upset his own party more than Republicans sometimes.

KELLY: And in terms of what they might actually be able to accomplish, just to focus on infrastructure...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KELLY: And this deal that Senator Capito is trying to hammer out, the two sides sound like they are still really far apart. Is she going to be able to get something done?

DAVIS: I mean, I think there's a lot of skepticism now that they're going to be able to do this. There's just a tremendous amount of difference between Republicans and Democrats and where they remain on this bill. Biden and Capito are going to talk again this week, but you already have Democrats saying, look; it's time to move on. This is silly. We're not going to get them on board. We could go it alone. The problem Democrats have here is they're not confident they have the 50 votes they need to go it alone because of, yes, senators like Joe Manchin.

KELLY: Yeah. Dave, I'm going to give you our remaining moments here. You know, if they don't manage to get something done, if there's no infrastructure bill, if there's no big voting bill, how does that play in West Virginia?

MISTICH: Well, I think people here are hopeful, but they're frustrated by the lack of movement. You know, the difference between $1.7 trillion and a trillion is a lot, but it seems like a lot of quibbling to a lot of people here. I'll say that, you know, we have crumbling infrastructure in the state, as bad as any place else in the nation. And I looked it up - the U.S. News & World Report ranks the state 50th in that category. And I'll say there's just, generally, a lot of skepticism that a jobs package that comes along with this could replace something that was as dominant as the coal industry.

CORNISH: Dave Mistich with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and NPR congressional correspondent Sue Davis. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.