WASHINGTON — As Democrats unleashed relentless criticism against Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week, portraying him as a reckless politician willing to force the country into default and slash bedrock entitlement programs, one of their own spoke up in the top Republican’s defense: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
Mr. Manchin emerged from a one-on-one meeting with Mr. McCarthy on Wednesday insisting that the House Republican leader had assured him that he would not demand cuts to Social Security and Medicare as a condition of raising the debt ceiling — and in fact was interested in a reasonable compromise.
“Kevin McCarthy’s nature is to want to show some really good leadership,” Mr. Manchin said in an interview.
It was concrete evidence that Mr. Manchin, the centrist who has been both a thorn in the side of his fellow Democrats and a pivotal player in many of their achievements over the past two years, is positioning himself to play a major role in forging a deal in a divided Congress to avert a looming fiscal crisis.
In doing so, he is once again breaking with President Biden, who has said he will not negotiate over raising the debt limit — a position that Mr. Manchin has called “a mistake” — and undercutting his party’s message, which has been to cast Republicans’ plan to block a debt-limit increase without deep spending cuts as one that could, in Mr. Biden’s words last week, “wreck our economy.”
“We’re going to have to bring a group of Democrats together that is willing to work and meet him halfway,” Mr. Manchin said of Mr. McCarthy in an interview, adding that he has been in conversations with centrists in the House who could be part of such a coalition. “I think we all know that we’re going to vote for the debt ceiling. It just depends how much how much punishment goes on as we go down that road, and how much blame can be laid upon somebody.
“I’m trying to avoid an embarrassment that makes the United States look like the kind of country we don’t want to be,” Mr. Manchin said.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
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In a town known for its cynicism and toxic partisanship, Mr. Manchin’s determination to be the broker of an improbable fiscal deal is the latest evidence of his almost quixotic confidence in his ability to bring rival factions together on any issue. (In the past he has expressed shock and dismay after he couldn’t convince Republicans to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol or streamline the permitting of energy projects.)
“Manchin believes with all that is within him that if he could just get everybody in the room and lock the door and order pizza, that he can get a deal,” says Hoppy Kercheval, a radio host who is known as the dean of West Virginia broadcasters.
It’s a trait that can be infuriating to Mr. Manchin’s Democratic colleagues, and one that leads to a curious political disconnect: The Democrat in Congress most eager to ally himself with Republicans is the same one they are targeting most intensely for defeat.
Senate Republicans have rolled out an aggressive ad campaign against the West Virginia senator who is up for re-election in 2024, declaring war on the man they have dubbed “Maserati Manchin” — a reference to his expensive sports car — as part of a pressure campaign designed to dissuade him from seeking a third term.
Mr. Manchin was not surprised, he said in an interview. “The toxic part of this political process is, whoever’s in cycle is the enemy.”
For now, he is being coy about his political future.
“I haven’t decided,” he said, “whether I run for Senate or whether I’m taking on a new adventure in life. I really haven’t. I’m not ready to make a decision yet.”
His Senate seat, in a deep red state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by about 39 percentage points, is now the most coveted target for Senate Republicans, who believe they can take back the chamber by picking off Mr. Manchin and two other Democratic senators from more conservative states: Senator Jon Tester of Montana (where Mr. Trump won by 16 percentage points) and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio (where Mr. Trump won by 8 percentage points).
Mr. Manchin’s Republican opponents have been queuing up to take him on. Governor Jim Justice — who has vacillated between being an ally and a foe of Mr. Manchin throughout his career and once fired Mr. Manchin’s wife, Gayle — says he is “seriously considering” a run for Senate, and Representative Alex X. Mooney, who is further to the right, has already announced his candidacy.
But even as they attack him, Mr. Manchin says Republicans in Congress are still working on him “every day” to switch parties, though the requests no longer come from Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican from Kentucky, whose relationship with Mr. Manchin grew strained last year.
“McConnell’s given up, he’s tried so many times,” Mr. Manchin said.
In the interim, Mr. Manchin has an outsized share of leverage in Washington. Both Mr. Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, badly need Mr. Manchin to seek a third term if they hope to preserve Democratic control of the chamber, a strong incentive to keep the former West Virginia University quarterback happy.
Mr. Manchin says he has been watching the polls closely. He knows when he has opposed Mr. Biden, his numbers shot up in West Virginia. When he agreed with the Biden agenda, his ratings declined.
At no time was this more evident than when he backed the party-line climate and tax legislation, which aims to counter the toll of climate change on a rapidly warming planet, takes steps to lower the cost of prescription drugs and revamps portions of the tax code to pay for it all.
“He knew it was going to be really hard on his approval ratings,” said Senator John Hickenlooper, Democrat of Colorado. “And he knew he was going to be up for re-election. And yet he did it because he thought it was the right thing for West Virginia and the right thing for this country.”
As such, Mr. Manchin has lately undertaken a rebranding tour about the bill, which was called the Inflation Reduction Act but was mostly hailed as an environmental success. In media interviews and public appearances, Mr. Manchin, who has a personal financial interest in the coal industry, has sought to reframe legislation he helped draft as a domestic “energy security” bill whose primary goal is to ensure the United States doesn’t need to rely on other nations for fuel; he emphasizes that it ensures drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, requires the federal government to auction off more public lands for oil drilling, and expands tax credits for carbon capture technology to benefit coal or gas-burning power plants.
“It’s the greatest fossil support deal that we’ve ever had — you can’t talk about that!” Mr. Manchin said. “Well, let me tell you one thing: We’re not putting no damn windmill in the Gulf of Mexico unless we’re drilling.”
Headed into 2020, he predicted a closely divided Senate would be a “golden opportunity” for bipartisan deal-making, and, indeed, it was: For an institution better known for paralysis, the 117th Congress pulled off an extraordinarily productive run, with Mr. Manchin in the center of many of those deals.
They included passage of the biggest investment in clean energy in U.S. history, the largest financing of bridges since the construction of the interstate highway system, the first bipartisan gun safety legislation in a generation, a huge microchip production and scientific research bill to bolster American competitiveness with China, a major veterans health care measure, and an overhaul of the electoral system designed to prevent another Jan. 6-style attempt to overturn a presidential election.
While deeply involved in those negotiations, Mr. Manchin often was the voice of “no” within the party, demanding smaller bills and “raising hell,” as he describes it, about the danger of prompting out-of-control inflation. The biggest setback he dealt to Mr. Biden’s agenda was when he killed the president’s sweeping “Build Back Better” domestic policy legislation, a move Mr. Manchin asserts “saved the country from going into a truly hard, hard recession.”
It was ultimately reborn in a smaller form as the climate, health and tax measure and rebranded as the Inflation Reduction Act.
“I know he frustrated some of my colleagues, but I think he played an enormously positive role” in negotiations, including paring down the domestic policy bill, said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia. “In retrospect, it was too big. It was basically trying to solve virtually every problem in a single piece of legislation.”
Mr. Warner added: “Let’s face it: The Fed was wrong; most economists cited by the administration were wrong; I was wrong — I didn’t think inflation was going to get as bad as it did — and he was more directionally right.”
Mr. Manchin concedes the current deal-making environment on Capitol Hill will be “more challenging” than in the last Congress, now that Republicans control the House. His vote is also slightly less pivotal, since Democrats have firmer control with a 51-to-49 majority rather than 50-50.
But Republicans and Democrats said Mr. Manchin will still be crucial. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and an ally of Mr. Manchin’s, says she hopes a group of centrists can figure out how to make deals in the current Congress, just as they did for the past two years.
“There’s going to have to be a lot of give and take and negotiation in order for us to get the people’s business done,” Ms. Collins said. “And Joe will be front and center.”