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Joe Manchin voted for controversial Trump nominees but is undecided on Biden’s

Manchin supported more Trump nominees than any other Democrat. Now, he could sink one of Biden’s.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) runs to the Senate floor for the fourth day of former US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial before the Senate on Capitol Hill on February 12, 2021, in Washington, DC. 
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — the lawmaker who voted for more Trump nominees than any other Democrat — could sink at least one of Biden’s.

Thus far, Manchin has already expressed his opposition to Neera Tanden, a nominee for the director role at the Office of Management and Budget, on the grounds that her previous social media posts targeting both Republicans and progressive Democrats were too polarizing.

“I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget,” Manchin said in a statement, adding later that the decision wasn’t “personal.”

Manchin’s opposition matters because Biden nominees might end up needing every Democratic vote in the Senate, where the party has the barest 50-person majority, to be confirmed. His decision likely means that Tanden won’t make it through, especially since a growing list of moderate Republicans who might have saved her nomination have also said that they won’t support her.

Manchin is also undecided about the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) for Interior Secretary, and the nomination of former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for Health and Human Services Secretary. Both have been prime Republican targets, given their more progressive views on policies including the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-All, respectively.

Signaling that he may ultimately back Haaland, Manchin released a statement on Tuesday afternoon highlighting how she has committed to working on West Virginia priorities with him, and preserving the country’s broader energy independence.

At this point, it’s still unclear how Manchin will ultimately vote on either candidate. His initial hedging, however, has already prompted Democratic blowback and raised questions about why he’s been less than supportive of a number of nominees who are also people of color. Tanden would be the first Indian American person to become OMB Director if she were to be confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American Interior Secretary, and Becerra would be the first Latino HHS Secretary. Manchin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Regardless of the reasons behind his concerns, the optics of the situation have earned him rebukes from some prominent progressives.

Former President Donald Trump’s first Attorney General “Jeff Sessions was so openly racist that even Reagan couldn’t appoint him. Manchin voted to confirm him,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet regarding the senator’s concerns about Haaland. “Yet the 1st Native woman to be Cabinet Sec is where Manchin finds unease?”

Manchin’s hesitation to embrace all of Biden’s nominees fits into a general pattern the senator has followed for some time: A moderate Democrat who represents a state that voted for Trump by nearly 40 points in the recent election, Manchin has long established himself as someone willing to buck his party — often while citing the importance of bipartisanship, as he did when speaking about Tanden’s nomination. “At a time of grave crisis, it is more important than ever that we chart a new bipartisan course that helps address the many serious challenges facing our nation,” Manchin recently said.

Now, however, progressives like Ocasio-Cortez are among those asking why Manchin was willing to support several problematic Trump nominees — many of whom were focused on partisan priorities — while remaining opposed or uncertain regarding Biden’s picks. It’s a dynamic that’s prompted people to wonder whether the senator’s litmus test applies differently depending on the candidate.

Joe Manchin was the only Democrat who backed a number of Trump nominees

During the last administration, Manchin also set himself apart when it came to nominees: He was the sole Democrat to back numerous Trump picks, a distinction that’s touted on his Senate website.

“On nine occasions, Senator Manchin was the only Democrat to vote to confirm Trump nominees, including two cabinet Secretaries, three circuit court judges, and various other nominees,” a statement reads.

Officials he ultimately supported include former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who pushed for the zero-tolerance policy that prompted the separation of parents from children at the southern border; Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced an allegation of sexual assault during his confirmation process; and former US Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, who encountered heat for his own tweets criticizing women.

Against this backdrop, it’s been somewhat jarring for many Democrats to see Manchin oppose or express indecision about Biden’s nominees who’ve garnered GOP blowback for their social media posts, or been dinged by Republicans for their progressive views on health care and energy policy, respectively.

There’s an obvious political reason for Manchin to take such stances: the heavy Trump tilt of his home state, whose other senator is Shelley Moore Capito, a Trump-supporting Republican. But it’s unclear how much constituents might factor in such votes when weighing his potential reelection in four years or in a theoretical run for governor in the future.

There are other possible reasons for this approach, too: While Manchin’s concerns with Tanden center heavily on her partisan statements, he’s told E&E News that he still has questions about Haaland’s agenda and her support for banning fracking on public lands. And Manchin, a pro-life Democrat, could also have questions similar to those Republicans have expressed about Becerra’s past backing for abortion rights.

Multiple nominees facing GOP opposition now are people of color

As Politico’s Lauren Barron-Lopez and Christopher Cadelago reported, something also causing consternation among Democrats — who have made promoting diversity a priority — is that the Biden nominees who’ve garnered the most pushback (or who face uncertainty about a successful confirmation) are all people of color, and mostly women. This has raised questions about whether Republicans and Manchin have double standards when it comes to how they’re evaluating Biden’s nominees.

“Is there a pattern here???” Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), the vice-chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus recently posted in a tweet, responding to the comments Manchin reportedly expressed on Haaland, in which he noted he still had “questions” about her candidacy.

The issue of whether nominees of color are getting more scrutiny and being more harshly penalized for their actions than white men is one that a number of Democratic lawmakers and advocates have highlighted.

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has reported, the irony in lawmakers using Tanden’s tweets as a reason to oppose her nomination is notable, since Republicans long backed Trump or stayed silent despite his incendiary presence on the social media platform. Grenell’s prior confirmation process, too, serves as another point of comparison for a nominee who got in trouble for controversial tweets but still received strong party support in the process.

“When a white man can get away with vile behavior, but a woman of color can’t express deep frustration ... let’s call it what it is,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) wrote in a tweet about Tanden. “Sexism. And with some, it’s racism as well.”

The final verdict on Tanden, Haaland, and Becerra’s nominations is not yet certain as they respectively make their way through the confirmation process. But racial justice and gender equity experts emphasize that women of color were central to Democrats’ presidential and Senate victories and should hold prominent roles in the administration.

“Women of color mobilized like never before this past election and delivered the White House, the Senate, and down-ballot seats throughout the country,” groups including She the People and Democracy for America write in a letter. “To be clear: We did not deliver the election only to be marginalized once again.”