Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has crossed the aisle to find compromises on Capitol Hill so often that some wonder — only half-jokingly — if that's where he belongs.
“It’s certainly helpful to have someone like Joe on the other side who is at least willing to have a conversation,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. “It would better still if Joe would join our side. I haven’t seen any evidence he’s interested in that, but he’d be welcome over here.”
When a group of Republican senators grew weary of the government shutdown and foot-dragging by Congress, they found Manchin eager to coral support for a bipartisan solution separate from the two party leaders.
"When we did that, we found out there was a lot more frustration than mine, and before you know there were 14 of us that were totally committed to getting something done," Manchin told the Washington Examiner.
Manchin, 66, who left the West Virginia governor's mansion for the Senate in 2011, is one of the few centrists left in Washington — and certainly the most conservative member of an increasingly liberal Democratic caucus.
In staking out a position in the middle, he has often put himself at odds with his own party, angering Democratic leaders as only a freshman maverick can. He recently broke from his party to support a one-year delay of the individual mandate, a key tenant of Obamacare. And he has been a constant critic of the Obama administration's energy policies and their impact on the coal-dependent economy of West Virginia.
But his independent streak has empowered him within the Senate, where he has become a key lawmaker on some of the thorniest issues to come before Congress in the last two years, from gun control to immigration.
“They think that when they start going in one direction, we’re supposed to follow, and that’s not where I come from. We all got here independently and I’ve got to be true to the people that elected me,” Manchin said. “If somebody gets upset with me, they have to understand I have a higher calling other than pleasing them.”
It was Manchin who suggested this summer that the Obama administration could backpedal its plan to bomb Syria by getting the Assad regime to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons.
Toomey and Manchin worked together on a gun control measure after the shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December left 20 young children and six adults dead. Manchin, who entered the debate with a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, proposed universal background checks on commercial gun purchases. It ultimately failed in the Senate.
Voters in West Virginia were supportive of the measure, but Manchin’s stature in the state has taken a hit as the NRA scorched him on the airwaves for his efforts. A Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this year showed public opinion was split on Manchin, whereas last year 61 percent thought he was doing his job well and just 23 percent disapproved.
Manchin calls himself a “West Virginia Democrat,” not a “Washington Democrat.” The difference, he said, is that “we’re more straightforward, we’re fiscally responsible and conservative ... [but] we’re prepared to take care of those who are less fortunate.” However, he is increasingly linked to a party and institution with which his state voters have grown disenchanted. His re-election in 2016 is a ways off, but Republicans there are already running ads in the state linking him to President Obama, who is liked by just a quarter of the state's voters.
There are also rumblings back home that Manchin is fed up with Washington. One Republican Party insider said the state GOP believes there’s a 1-in-3 chance that Manchin leaves the Senate and runs for governor again in 2016. That would be a remarkably short term for a man who came to Congress replacing the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Robert Byrd.
Larry Puccio, the state Democratic Party chairman and former chief of staff to Manchin, insisted his former boss and friend is “1,000 percent committed” to the Senate, but wouldn't say a run for governor is off the table. Manchin will determine “'what’s the very best thing I can do for West Virginia’ and would make that decision," Puccio said.
Another Manchin ally, West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, said he "sensed a level of frustration at least early on," but that has changed as Manchin has "stepped up on big issues, and he’s starting to get looked at nationally and in his own party as someone who is a voice of reason and still have collegiality within the body as well.”
Manchin sees room for progress, even as he maligns the atmosphere privately.
“The reason we’re in the legislature is not because we have the greatest idea and we’re trying to reinvent the wheel every day,” Manchin said. “Sometimes it’s better to just balance the car to run a little smoother.”