Pence seeks revenge against Manchin
Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Joe Manchin thought they had a deal.
Manchin told Pence last August he could not vote for the latest plan to repeal Obamacare but was committed to working on a bipartisan tax cut bill, according to Manchin and administration sources familiar with the private conversation, which took place at a tax reform event in the mountains of West Virginia.
Story Continued Below
But Manchin went further, according to administration officials and Republicans briefed on the conversation, and promised Pence that he would support the tax bill and give it the bipartisan sheen that President Donald Trump was eagerly seeking.
Manchin disputes that telling, but four months later, he voted no — and Pence has not forgotten about it.
On Manchin’s home soil last week, Pence laid into him by repeatedly asserting “Joe voted no” on the president’s priorities, a sharp political attack motivated by Pence’s belief that Manchin had broken his promise, according to GOP lawmakers who speak with Pence regularly.
Pence’s words were quickly turned into an advertisement for Senate Republicans against the vulnerable Democratic incumbent. Manchin, meanwhile, is furious that Pence has used the misunderstanding as the pretext to tear down his bipartisan credentials, claiming he would never commit to vote for a bill that had not yet been written and that Pence and the White House never really tried to work with him.
Manchin believes Pence has become an attack dog against his bipartisan reputation because the GOP is “afraid it plays too well with the public.”
“He looked me in the eye, and I looked him in the eye. And I said, ‘I want to work with you.’ And that’s a two-way street,” Manchin said in an interview. “That is so disingenuous from our vice president.”
“He’s not upset. He can’t be upset,” Manchin said of Pence.
Yet congressional Republicans close to Pence said there was no turning back on this impasse. One GOP lawmaker said Pence believes Manchin should now face political consequences for his vote. Pence is expected back in the state sometime before April, according to administration officials.
“Pence is pissed. He should be pissed,” said another Republican lawmaker.
The conflict marks perhaps the rockiest period of Manchin’s reelection campaign and imperils his relationship with the White House. Trump is still seeking Manchin’s input on some issues, including immigration. But having the disciplined Pence attacking Manchin in his backyard is an ominous development for a Democratic senator whose state backed Trump by more than 40 points in 2016.
No other Democrat has strained as much as Manchin to appear close to Trump and distant from the liberal heart of the Democratic Caucus. He voted for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and most of his Cabinet — even Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Joe gets plenty of breathing room,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Manchin is easily the Democrat most friendly to Trump and emphasizes his bipartisan record, noting he’s voted with the Trump administration more than 50 percent of the time. He opposed his party’s votes that led to a government shutdown and stood out as the lone Democrat clapping frequently for Trump’s State of the Union address.
But Pence’s broadside against the conservative Democrat may give Republicans the opening they’ve been looking for — with the party likely to repeat “Joe voted no” on the president’s priorities all the way to Election Day.
“This line of attack is something you’re going to see over and over,” said a national Republican strategist working to defeat Manchin.
Yet Pence may have done some damage to the institution he presides over as president of the Senate. Senators in both parties said they were upset with the burgeoning feud. After all, Pence may soon need Manchin’s vote given the GOP’s paper-thin 51-49 majority.
“I don’t think it’s wise to alienate people who are willing to work with you,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
“That was done because Joe is up” for reelection, said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “If Joe wasn’t up, they never would have done it.”
Yet Pence’s attack on Manchin articulated a long-running GOP sentiment: that Manchin talks a good game but is ultimately far more aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) than with the president. In West Virginia, that could be a problem.
“The message is: ‘Joe voted no.’ And let him explain it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Sen. Schumer expects him to vote the party line.”
“Manchin is kind of a moderate in name only,” said a senior White House official.
Manchin is doing everything he can to rebut that sentiment. On Tuesday, Manchin went to the floor to urge senators to pledge not to campaign against each other. Part of the pledge includes a vow not to raise money against sitting colleagues. Records show that Manchin’s political action committee donated to Alison Lundergan Grimes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s opponent in 2014, and that Manchin and Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who is running against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), were both on the same “Blue Senate 2018” joint fundraising committee.
“He raised money for himself,” said Jon Kott, a Manchin spokesman. “He never raised or donated to an opponent of his good friend, Sen. Heller.”
To hear Manchin tell it, Trump has continued seeking his counsel despite Pence and the administration’s low view of him as well as Trump’s own comments to The New York Times in December that Manchin “talks. But he doesn’t do anything.” Manchin and Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) visited with Trump on immigration in January, and Trump did not attack Manchin in his own speech in West Virginia last week.
“Why are they calling me back to the White House?” Manchin asked rhetorically.
Democratic and Republican strategists agree it wouldn’t have made sense for Manchin to have voted for Obamacare repeal, given the large number of West Virginians who have benefited from the law. But the tax vote cuts differently, and his “no” could end up being the most consequential political story of Manchin’s reelection campaign.
Manchin said he had held 21 meetings with the administration on tax reform and had offered at least four proposals skewing the bill away from aiding the wealthy. At a dinner with Pence, Trump and other senators in September, Trump reassured Manchin.
“I want you to know something, Joe. This is not going to be a tax cut for the rich and the wealthy like me. It’s going to be for the working person,” Trump said, according to Manchin.
Yet congressional Republicans kept tilting the bill away from Manchin.
In the winter, Trump himself admitted that repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate made it “tough” for the Democrat to support the bill, according to Manchin. Then the night before the first vote on the bill in December, Manchin asked Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on the Senate floor whether the GOP wanted “to have the appearance of bipartisanship” by winning his vote.
Manchin says Portman responded: “We’ve already got 51.” A Republican familiar with the conversation disputed that, and said Portman was trying to relay to Manchin that his tax proposals would lose Republican votes and make tax reform impossible.
At that point, Manchin was left with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. And Manchin said he had no choice but to disappoint the vice president.
“They can always count on me to work with them,” Manchin said. “But that works both ways.”
Kevin Robillard contributed to this report.
February 7, 2018 at 09:02AMNo tags for this post.