clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Stephen Breyer’s retirement puts the spotlight on Joe Manchin — again

The West Virginia senator has become even more important.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks to reporters outside of his office on Capitol Hill on January 4, 2022, in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

As furious as Democrats might be at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), they really do still need him.

Justice Stephen Breyer’s reported decision to retire from the Supreme Court sets up a high-stakes Senate confirmation battle to succeed him. And Democrats’ bare 50 vote majority in the chamber means they’ll have to go back, hat in hand, to Manchin.

The West Virginia Democrat delivered two blows to President Biden’s agenda recently, pulling out of negotiations over the Build Back Better Act, and voting against a Senate rules change to advance voting rights legislation. Recriminations have been fast and furious, with much of the party’s base united in loathing against Manchin, and others wondering if party leaders mishandled their relationship with this pivotal politician.

His colleague, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), was also driving a hard bargain on Build Back Better, and joined Manchin in voting against the rules change. But Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by 39 percentage points in 2020, is generally viewed as the tougher vote to get. And his relationship with the White House has reportedly soured — Manchin has said staffers there did “inexcusable” things during negotiations. So some repair work needs to be done.

But Democrats are optimistic. Manchin has voted for every lower court judge Biden has nominated so far, including now-DC circuit court judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is often mentioned as a possible choice for Breyer’s seat. Manchin also voted for two of Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — so he can argue he is simply being bipartisan by supporting Biden’s pick as well. (Manchin voted against Amy Coney Barrett, but said that was because of the rushed process of her nomination.)

They likely won’t get a clear answer anytime soon. Manchin’s typical practice is to wait until very late to announce his voting intention on controversial bills or nominees. (Infamously, he waited to announce his support of Kavanaugh until just minutes after Kavanaugh locked down the Republican votes he needed to be assured of confirmation.)

It’s also not certain that Manchin’s vote will be necessary to confirm Biden’s nominee. Supreme Court confirmation votes have become more polarized by partisanship in recent decades, but Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) voted to confirm both of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees who made it to the floor. Importantly, the stakes are not so high in this case compared to recent vacancies — conservatives have a 6-3 majority on the Court, and this nominee would merely be replacing one of the three liberals with another. So if Biden’s nominee isn’t so controversial, some Republicans could well be on board.

But if controversy does embroil Biden’s nominee — something that conservative politicians and media outlets will surely try to bring about — he probably won’t be able to rely on Republican votes for a rescue. In that circumstance, the best would be getting 50 votes from his own party, and that means getting Joe Manchin. So prepare for some diplomacy.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.