July 20

By Susan Milligan

President Joe Biden didn’t mention the “Other Joe” by name when the higher-ranking Democrat announced plans Wednesday to take unilateral action to deal with climate change. But the underlying message was clear: Biden has had enough of Sen. Joe Manchin blocking his agenda on Capitol Hill.

“Since Congress is not acting, like it should, as president, I will use my executive power to combat climate change in the absence of congressional action,” Biden said at an event in Somerset, Massachusetts, the site of a former coal-fired power plant. Initial plans include expanding offshore wind energy and helping communities deal now with the high heat and other impact of climate change.

The president may also declare a national emergency on climate change, though White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not give a timeline for such a declaration.

Whether the president will be able to do much without congressional authority or approval by the courts is an ongoing question. But with the Democratic base furious with Manchin and frustrated with Biden for not doing more, the announcement Wednesday was a sign that Biden intends to kick things up a few notches – even if it doesn’t end up with enduring policy changes.

“People around the country want to see action. They don’t want to hear excuses,” says Eric Schmeltzer, a Democratic strategist. While people understand that Manchin, a West Virginia lawmaker, has held up the president’s initiatives along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, “they don’t want to hear that as a reason nothing can be done,” Schmeltzer adds.

In recent weeks, Biden has issued an executive order and taken executive branch actions to expand access to abortion where he can, given the Supreme Court decision allowing sates to severely restrict or ban the procedure. Thursday, the president will travel to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he will expand on a recently signed law meant to address gun violence with some new proposals.

The climate announcement comes as much of the country – more than 100 million, Biden said Wednesday – is under a heat advisory, and Europe is grappling with record heat. It is “literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger,” and there’s no time to wait, the president said.

But Biden’s plans for climate change have been stymied by one of his party’s own: Manchin, who teased fellow Democrats by negotiating – or appearing to negotiate – a bill that includes measures to combat climate change. Since the proposal was part of a budget reconciliation bill that could not be filibustered, it could be passed with a simple majority of the entire Democratic caucus and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris.

But Manchin last week pulled out, saying he simply would not back any measure that included the climate change provisions. That enraged fellow Democrats, who said Manchin was not negotiating in good faith, and appalled environmental activists, who complained Manchin was inexplicably putting the planet at risk.

Manchin, a conservative Democrat from a deep red state, told reporters he was never stringing anyone along and that he was merely doing what he thought was best for his state and the federal budget. But the episode brought the Joe-vs.-Joe conflict to a head.

Biden needs Manchin, since it is the West Virginian’s vote that made Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York the majority leader instead of the Senate minority leader. The president also worked with Manchin on a bipartisan infrastructure law, fueling hopes that there were ways for the two men’s often clashing agendas to result in compromise.

But Manchin also must answer to his constituents, and his situation there is complex, says John Kilwein, a political science professor at West Virginia University.

“He has an incredibly narrow needle to thread, in terms of being able to get re-elected,” Kilwein says. “He can’t act like Chuck Schumer,” but “he needs every vote he can get,” including those of West Virginia’s progressive and environmentalist population.

“He seems to be going out of his way to stick his finger in the eyes of the few progressives who live in West Virginia,” which could give him problems when he seeks reelection or runs again for governor, Kilwein adds.

For Biden, the dance is tricky as well. The base of his party wants Biden to get tough with Manchin. But Biden has no carrot or stick to throw at the Mountain State lawmaker: The worst threat he could throw at Manchin is a pledge to campaign on his behalf in a state where 69% voted for Donald Trump in 2020.

Manchin’s options on the Hill are limited as well. Threatening to jump to the other party if he doesn’t get his way would likely have a temporary effect only, since Republicans surely would shop for a far more conservative candidate next time around. And if Democrats ousted Manchin in a primary – he’s up again in 2024 – in favor of a more liberal contender, that Democrat would almost certainly lose the general election.

Biden on Wednesday called out the 50 GOP senators for refusing to entertain climate change legislation but did not mention Manchin. Nor did Gina McCarthy, the White House climate adviser who accompanied Biden on his Massachusetts trip.

“I do not know what Congress is anticipating now, or any one senator,” McCarthy told reporters on Air Force One, after being asked if the White House would delay a declaration of emergency on climate change in hopes of getting the West Virginia senator’s vote on the bill this fall.

Jean-Pierre also did not repeat Manchin’s name when she was asked a similar question. It was almost as if the White House had cut the Other Joe out of the legislative equation.