AP: Manchin already making name known in US Senate

This article appeared online on May 28, 2011.

Manchin already making name known in US Senate
by Lawrence Messina (AP)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Six months into his new job on Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has busily pursued a brand of consensus-building that helped him twice win the governor’s mansion and continues to keep him in view of West Virginia voters as the 2012 election nears.

The 63-year-old Democrat has called for preserving the bulk of the federal health care overhaul, while helping lead the charge to scrap some of its more unpopular provisions.

He has echoed congressional Republicans who balk at increasing the federal debt limit without major budget changes. But he says he also seeks to shield social programs from significant cuts.

He has co-sponsored several bills with Republicans and co-hosted more than half a dozen bipartisan Senate lunches with Illinois GOP Sen. Mark Kirk. Their goal is to discuss the issues of the day and identify potential middle ground.

“I’ve tried everything to foster bipartisanship,” Manchin told The Associated Press.

His bipartisan approach should come as no surprise given the coalitions he built with groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce, leading to decisive victories in his 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial campaigns.

Nor should his vow to be independent. During last year’s campaign, Manchin aired a famous TV ad that depicted him shooting the Obama administration’s climate change bill with a hunting rifle.

Kurt Helms was among Manchin’s critics in 2010. The retired coal miner from Moundsville told AP before the special election that Manchin was “just in lockstep with the Pelosi-Reid-Obama administration.”

On Thursday, Helms, 61, gave Manchin high marks — for now.

“I think he’s doing a great job right now,” he said. “But I’m waiting on something where there’s a tight vote … Let’s see what happens when it really counts, when the tire meets the road. Right now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.”

Manchin’s approach on Capitol Hill has raised his profile beyond the status normally reserved for the body’s 85th most-senior member. Seniority is highly prized in the Senate and Manchin is following the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, history’s longest-serving member of Congress.

“I intend to always be a voice for West Virginia, with or without seniority,” Manchin said.

To that end, he has maintained almost constant contact with the state that gave him 53 percent of the vote in last year’s race against Republican John Raese and a third-party candidate.

Manchin’s office has conducted four statewide tours since January, with another aimed at veterans slated for this week. While his staff has visited all 55 counties, Manchin has appeared in 29 of them as a senator and logged more than 12,000 miles in the process. These tours have included nine courthouse visits, 11 “coffee and common sense” get-togethers and four town hall-style meetings.

“We let people come in and speak their minds,” Manchin said. “I’m still promoting retail government, service to the voters and not to yourself.”

His office says it has also handled more than 1,800 constituent cases, usually involving problems with benefits for black lung, veterans, Medicare or Social Security.

Planning to seek a full six-year term in 2012, Manchin has been regularly attacked by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other GOP groups. They have slammed him for his votes on various issues or continue to try and link him to President Barack Obama and the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

Helms, the retired miner who criticized Manchin during the 2010 race, is among those who aren’t buying that line. He compared Manchin to Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who is also known for crossing party lines at times.

“I think he’s using common sense. I don’t think he’s playing the party politics,” Helms said of Manchin.

Manchin said GOP attacks reflect Washington’s high-pressure politics. His six years as governor were nothing like what he’s experienced since taking office last November, he said.

“This whole thing up here revolves around the elections every two years,” Manchin said. “Everything is based around political decisions, more so than practical decisions … Everyone is worried about the next election rather than the next generation.”

Manchin’s stance on the debt ceiling has put him at odds with most Senate Democrats. Fellow Democrat and West Virginia senior Sen. Jay Rockefeller recently bashed a Manchin-endorsed proposal to cap federal spending at 20.6 percent of the nation’s economic output.

The proposal “could not be achieved without literally trillions of dollars in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security,” Rockefeller said in a statement.

“When endorsing the proposal to cap federal spending, Senator Manchin said that one of his top priorities is keeping our promises to seniors by protecting Social Security and Medicare,” the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy said in a report responding to Manchin’s support of the proposal. “But it would be nearly impossible to comply with the spending cap without major cuts to these programs upon which seniors rely.”

Manchin has stood his ground.

He cites White House-supplied figures to argue that spending remained within that limit for 40 years until 2008, and has since crept up as high as 25.3 percent last year. He also agreed with Rockefeller that tax cuts benefiting wealthier Americans have contributed to the fiscal situation.

“You can’t do it just by cutting spending. You can’t do it just by raising taxes,” Manchin said. “It will have to be a combination.”

Manchin has maintained a perfect voting record since Congress began its latest session in January, according to his office. But such was not the case during the tail end of the previous session. He missed a pair of key votes to attend a family holiday gathering in December, a little over a month after his Nov. 15 swearing-in.

Those included the successful proposal to overturn the military ban on openly gay troops. He was roundly criticized, though he notes he had issued statements opposing both measures and had informed the Senate of his planned absence in advance.

Manchin defends what he considers one of his most difficult votes: He helped defeat a House-passed bid to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood. For now, at least, the vote has cost Manchin the longtime support of groups that oppose abortion.

Anti-abortion groups target Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services through other revenues. Several have blasted Manchin over this issue including the Susan B. Anthony List, which describes itself as focused partly on “defeating those who use the pro-life title but don’t back it up with their vote.”

“Over a third of Planned Parenthood’s revenue comes straight out of the pockets of the taxpayers,” the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said in a statement criticizing Manchin. “Commonsense says this frees up money for abortion.”

Following the April 14 vote, Manchin cited a lifelong opposition to abortion but also said the federal funds help provide cancer screenings, family planning and other health services for women he called vital.

“It’s not going to stop Planned Parenthood from doing abortions,” Manchin said. “It’s going to stop poor people from getting other services that they need.”

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