Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris lashed out at popular late-night talk show host Charlamagne for posing the question “I want to know who the real president of this country is – is it Joe Biden, or Joe Manchin?”
“C’mon Charlamagne. C’mon, it’s Joe Biden,” Harris responded. “I can’t tell sometimes,” the host retorted, before Harris cut him off.
The tense exchange was a reflection of what many came to accept as a fact in Washington, DC and across the United States: that it is not Biden, but Manchin, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, who decides the fate of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda.
Indeed, with no votes to spare in the evenly divided Senate, Manchin has taken advantage of his power to control whether Democrats have a majority of votes for proposed legislation. From the American Rescue Plan and Build Back Better to voting rights, he has almost single-handedly determined whether the president’s key agenda items are passed or hopelessly stalled.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept a relatively low profile lately, at least compared with his time explicitly undermining Barack Obama’s agenda or implementing the Republican wish list – lower taxes, a conservative federal judiciary, and so on – during the Trump presidency. Yet the Kentucky senator’s words still carry significant weight on Capitol Hill, with a sentence or two setting the parameters for debate.
When McConnell indicates a willingness for bipartisan compromise, important legislation can move through rather quickly, as was the case at the end of 2021 when McConnell negotiated a deal with Democrats to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. But when he opposes the legislation, as was the case for the various voting rights bills debated in 2021, McConnell’s stance has all but guaranteed a unified Republican opposition that makes it nearly impossible to pass bills. Donald Trump may retain a stranglehold on the Republican Party with his unyielding demands for personal loyalty, but McConnell still decides how the Republican Senate caucus moves – or more often, when it refuses to move.
Despite different party affiliations and political careers, these two senators from neighbouring Appalachian states find themselves operating as the de facto kings of their parties, leveraging their abilities to delay and block agendas into a situation where policies flow through them. Just as the monarchs on the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones sat atop a seat constructed from the swords of their vanquished enemies, Manchin and McConnell have built their thrones from the detritus of filibustered bills, scuttled nominations, and scrapped agendas that have died because of their obstructionism.
Mastering the art of the no-deal
McConnell was not always this way. Early in his career, he was a moderate Republican working his way up the Senate hierarchy, becoming Republican Party leader after the 2006 midterm elections. But he really made a name for himself as a foil to President Obama. The most famous, or infamous, statement of McConnell’s political career was his declaration in 2010 that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”. This remark became the de facto mission statement of McConnell and the Republican caucus that he leads, one that is more focused on politically defeating Democrats than on legislating.
McConnell’s crowning moment was the cynical decision he made as Senate majority leader to prevent Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, now Attorney General Merrick Garland, from even being considered on the Senate floor. McConnell’s flimsy reasoning, that such an appointment should not be made in an election year, was nakedly disingenuous and completely discredited when he fast-tracked Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, significantly closer to an election four years later.
McConnell largely cooperated with President Trump during the latter’s one term in office, but the alliance was clearly a marriage of convenience, with McConnell barely attempting to hide his personal disdain for the bloviating, mercurial Trump. And McConnell was not averse to using his obstructionist powers against the man who aggressively took over the Republican Party. Most notably, McConnell refused to help negotiate a new round of stimulus spending in the weeks leading up the 2020 presidential election, which would have almost certainly gained Trump some votes in November.
As Ryan Grim of The Intercept notes, because of the vote-distorting effect of the Electoral College, a shift of only 100,000 votes in key states could have won Trump the election, making McConnell’s inaction seem very much like an intentional effort to deny Trump re-election. Failing on his goal of making Obama a one-term president, McConnell succeeded in doing so for Trump.
Then, as Trump’s term ended with the desperate Capitol Hill insurrection, McConnell pulled off a series of political manoeuvres that angered all sides – as outgoing majority leader, he delayed Trump’s second impeachment until after the president had left office. Then, despite denouncing Trump as morally responsible for the attack against the US government, McConnell signalled his intent to acquit Trump, arguing in part, that a post-presidency impeachment – the scenario that McConnell himself had engineered – rendered convicting Trump a moot point. In doing so, McConnell ensured that most of the Republican Senate caucus would close ranks and let the former president off the hook.
Manchin, by contrast, has not had McConnell’s Senate longevity or formal leadership role within the Democratic Party. In the Senate since 2010, Manchin’s main distinction was as an anachronistic conservative Democrat who was able to hold the Senate seat in deeply red West Virginia. But the 2020 election, and Georgia unexpectedly going blue in its two Senate runoffs, gave Democrats the White House and Congress with a razor-thin Senate majority. Manchin suddenly became the party’s focus. As the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, he became the swing vote between a Senate tie (with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote) and defeat at the hands of McConnell and the Republicans that he keeps in lockstep.
Using his threat to vote against legislation he did not approve, Manchin took control of Biden’s infrastructure agenda, playing a big role in authoring the final bill, which achieved bipartisan support and channelled billions of dollars to West Virginia. Manchin was able to secure various concessions concerning Biden’s signature Build Back Better plan, only to then announce that he would not vote for the proposal, essentially killing the bill. Though this last act obstruction drew anger and condemnation from fellow Democrats in the Senate, progressive House members, and even the White House, it also left Manchin in the seat of power as Biden scrambles to renegotiate his agenda.
Down with the kings
McConnell and Manchin are both starting to face the limits of their political naysaying. McConnell has drawn the ire of Trump, who has been outright hostile towards the senator since leaving office and has called for McConnell to be replaced as Republican Senate leader. By “betraying” Trump, McConnell has lost much of his support among Republican voters – his favourability rating among Republicans plummeted. McConnell is also in danger of losing his previously rock-solid hold on the Republican Senate caucus; just recently, Senator Lindsey Graham indicated that he will no longer support McConnell’s leadership unless the Kentucky senator can develop a “working relationship” with Trump. In the end, McConnell – who turns 80 in a few weeks – may very well choose to finish out his current term (as Republican leader or not) and retire, though he has shot down such speculation in the past.
Manchin’s ascendancy is almost certainly short-lived. His influence comes from a unique set of circumstances that will change in November, when Democrats may lose the House and the configuration of the Senate will presumably shift. Knowing that his moment is fleeting, Manchin appears to be eating it up for as long as he can. Manchin’s hesitancy to remove the filibuster in order to pass voting rights protection – a stance he shares with fellow conservative Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – has put him in a position of power with this key item of the Democratic agenda as well. Reportedly, he has been privately lobbied by everyone from media mogul Oprah Winfrey to former presidents Bill Clinton and Obama to move on the filibuster.
But Manchin’s moment in the spotlight, which was already scheduled to end with the next election, may not last that long. After serving as the roadblock for much of the Democratic Party’s agenda, his colleagues and the White House may soon decide that it is no longer worth it to placate the West Virginian in exchange for limited returns. Additionally, Manchin’s efforts to frustrate the Democratic agenda from within the party have been matched by the obstruction of the equally recalcitrant Senator Sinema. And while Manchin looks to reshape legislation to his liking, Sinema has been more enigmatic and less amenable to negotiation (speculation has it she may be attempting to carve out a position as a maverick, bipartisan centrist in anticipation of a presidential run, much like her late predecessor John McCain. With Sinema unwilling to play ball on key issues like the filibuster, winning Manchin’s support becomes moot and his leverage disappears.
If the Democratic Party tires of Manchin completely, he may be forced to seek refuge with the GOP, an offer extended to him late last year by none other than McConnell. As it stands now, McConnell and Manchin are positioning themselves to lose their power, if not their seats, with relatively few friends to show for their efforts. In their own eyes, they are the heroes of their story.
After Manchin, Sinema and the Republican Senate caucus defeated voting rights legislation and filibuster reform this week, McConnell declared that they had “saved the Senate”. McConnell’s view brings to mind the American commander during the Vietnam War who reportedly declared that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it”. By further destroying the ability of the Senate to function as anything other than a block on the agenda of the party in power, McConnell and Manchin leave behind a blueprint for a style of politics that places obstruction above accomplishment, a legacy that is already producing imitators and further grinding to a halt the workings of a government that has been bitterly divided for some time.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.