Saber rattling or cobra strike? McConnell goes all-out in wooing Manchin

This may have started out like a grandmaster trolling exercise from Cocaine Mitch. Today, though, Mitch McConnell has begun to sound veeeerrrryyyyy serious in his courtship of Joe Manchin in the wake of the collapse of the BBB. How serious? Take a listen to McConnell’s interview with our friend and Salem colleague Hugh Hewitt this morning:

Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman tweeted that this looks more like “saber rattling,” but noted that an offer for a chair puts this a bit beyond trolling status. Manchin currently chairs the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, a post from which he can protect West Virginia’s coal and other energy industries from getting wiped out by a Green New Deal. Currently, John Barrasso serves as the ranking member and would ascend to the chair if the GOP flipped the Senate back to their control. Barrasso would almost certainly make room, but he’d have to get something in return. He might want the chair of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is currently chaired by Patty Murray with the retiring Richard Burr as ranking member. Being a physician, that might be a perfect fit. although he’s not currently on the committee and another physician (Bill Cassidy) is next in rank. There are other committees to offer Barrasso, though, not to mention that his own leadership ambitions rest largely on winning the majority at some point.

McConnell wasn’t just shooting his mouth off on Hugh’s show, either. In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, the once and future Senate Majority Leader also made a case for Manchin’s switch for his own good:

The Senate, Mr. McConnell noted, is an institution where the most important vote is the next one, leaving the Republican leader perplexed as to what drove Democrats to impugn Mr. Manchin’s integrity by accusing him of reneging on commitments to the president.

“Why in the world would they want to call him a liar and try to hotbox him and embarrass him?” Mr. McConnell, who is just one Senate seat away from regaining the majority leader title, asked in an interview. “I think the message is, ‘We don’t want you around.’ Obviously that is up to Joe Manchin, but he is clearly not welcome on that side of the aisle.” …

Mr. McConnell seemed to see the clash over the spending measure as potentially providing a new opening for a party switch that would both restore him as majority leader and shift the ground in Washington. And he is also not against stirring up trouble for Democrats however and whenever he can.

“Obviously we would love to have him on our team,” said Mr. McConnell. “I think he’d be more comfortable.”

The Hill reports that John Cornyn, McConnell’s number-two in the Senate GOP caucus, has also begun to openly pitch Manchin:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also said he contacted Manchin about switching sides of the aisle following his decision on the spending plan.

“Joe if they don’t want you we do,” Cornyn said in a text to Manchin, according to a local Texas news station.

“I don’t know what he will decide to do. But I do know West Virginia has gotten increasingly red. … So, yeah, we’d love to have him. That would change the majority,” Cornyn added.

Now this looks like a negotiation that actually offers some benefit to Manchin. This from the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, however, does not:

Jayapal did seem to open the door to a way forward, though it’s a twisted and murky path.

Jayapal told me she contacted Manchin on Tuesday morning, and asked him to return to the original framework that Biden released in October, which laid out general goals: An expanded child tax credit for one year, ACA subsidies for four years, universal pre-K for six years, half a trillion dollars for climate, and more.

Biden had assured House Democrats that Manchin committed to this framework and that it would win 50 Democratic senators, Jayapal notes. But Manchin now denies that commitment.

So Jayapal told me she asked Manchin to take that framework and line it up next to the BBB that passed the House (which Manchin has rejected). She asked him to say what, specifically, in the House bill doesn’t match up with what Manchin did commit to in the framework (in his discussions with Biden), and to say what specifically in the framework he did not commit to and does not support.

The idea of this exercise, Jayapal said, is to create a baseline for future negotiations. “We need to move forward on as many parts of Build Back Better that we can get,” Jayapal told me.

“Twisted and murky” is one way of putting it. It’s a trap is another. In the first place, Jayapal has insisted for months that neither she nor her caucus will accept anything less than full implementation of all their programs. Sargent’s own newspaper reported exactly the same thing yesterday. This does not appear to be a good-faith negotiation for a process of narrowing down programs to fit into a budget; instead, it looks like a ploy to get Manchin to commit to opposing certain programs, even if that opposition is only in the context of a reconciliation bill.

If Manchin plays along with Jayapal, progressives will use those choices as the basis for a hardball political ad campaign aimed at West Virginia voters. Manchin’s state will see an endless rollout of ads with themes like Manchin hates kids! Manchin hates seniors! Manchin hates the planet! Progressive activists and House members have already repeatedly tried this tactic to no avail (including repeated tosses of the race card), but they’re not sounding any conciliatory notes at all. Progressives have made it clear that they have a BBB fevah and the only solution is more bullying cowbell.

At some point, Manchin will need to choose which group he prefers to negotiate and which group represents his own perspective best. He has gotten a lot of mileage in West Virginia out of a political identity as a conservative Democrat that can hold both sides accountable, but that only got him 48% of the statewide vote in an otherwise good Democratic cycle in 2018. McConnell’s betting that Manchin sees the expiration date on that identity coming up fast, because it clearly will arrive before the 2024 presidential cycle when Manchin has to decide whether to run for re-election. Will Manchin see it and act? Stay tuned.

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