Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) planned exit from the Senate is delivering a blow to the eroding dealmaking sector of the upper chamber, as compromise becomes devalued and partisanship wins out at the ballot box.
The West Virginia centrist has played among the most prominent roles in numerous bipartisan legislative efforts, including President Biden’s signature infrastructure law in 2021, negotiations on firearm background checks and on energy policy.
But his retirement is the latest in a trend of senators known for their give-and-take exiting the chamber and being replaced by more partisan figures. In the past two cycles alone, former Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) all have departed the chamber and have had their seats filled by lawmakers who are more conservative and less cozy with GOP leadership.
It’s a trend that is showing no signs of ebbing anytime soon.
“We all as a party should have a vested interest in strengthening Americans confidence that Congress can function and get broad consensus around solutions to problem,” said John LaBombard, a Democratic strategist at ROKK Solutions and former top aide to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “That happens when you’ve got people in the middle who are more willing to find a way to get to ‘yes’ on bipartisan solutions than they are worried about their party’s base.”
With West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) the heavy favorite to replace Manchin, that seat could similarly go to an ally of former President Trump.
And Manchin isn’t the only lawmaker cut from the fabric of compromise leaving the scene after next year.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has been involved in myriad bipartisan negotiations during his single term, has already announced plans to retire.
Sinema is fighting for her political life as she stares down a potential three-way race against Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Republican Kari Lake. According to recent surveys and reports, she trails both of them if she moves ahead with an independent bid.
To lawmakers of that ilk, Manchin’s exit hurts.
“He’s one of the people that makes things happen here,” Romney said. “He gets law, not just statements. I’m going to miss him. … He’s a dealmaker.”
Senate Republicans have been intent on defeating Manchin for years, but in 2018 failed to secure a top-notch recruit to keep him from a second full term.
That changed this year with Justice, whom Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, heavily recruited to seek the seat. Trump threw his support behind Justice last month.
Although Senate Republicans are pleased to see the seat virtually fall into the GOP’s column already, there is part of them that is lamenting the loss of another middle-man.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said as much shortly after Manchin made his decision, telling The Hill that while it’s nice to have more Republicans, it’s also important to have Democrats willing to negotiate.
“It doesn’t mean that I particularly want to see people like Manchin leave the Senate, if they’re Democrats that work in a bipartisan way,” he said. “We need more of that.”
The West Virginia moderate infuriated Republicans from time to time, especially after he struck a deal with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Inflation Reduction Act, having only months before dealt what they believed was a fatal blow by siding against the Build Back Better package.
However, he was also instrumental in keeping the Senate rules in place after he and Sinema refused to join with Senate Democrats to change the 60-vote filibuster threshold to allow the party to move legislation to codify abortion or voting rights. The potential loss of both Manchin and Sinema, especially if Gallego replaces her, makes Republicans nervous about what could come their way if President Biden wins a second term next year.
“That’s a real concern that we have,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. “It would change the Senate, and not for the better. … [The Founding Fathers] wanted us to be less volatile than the House and less childish than the House.”
Despite the continued hollowing out of the Senate’s middle, some members are confident that lawmakers will step in to fill the void left behind, even though they acknowledge the concerning dynamic. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) invoked former French President Charles de Gaulle’s line that the “graveyards are filled with indispensable men,” likening the line to those who leave the chamber.
“There are plenty of other negotiators here,” Kaine said. “We all like to think we’re indispensable, and yet none of us are.”
“This is a place where there’s plenty of people who want to do right and do good things,” he continued. “This place will just keep plugging.”