The interview on a West Virginia news station was an effort by Vice President Kamala Harris to pitch the administration’s pandemic relief package directly to voters – including constituents of Democrats who might be less likely to embrace the plan.
“In West Virginia, one in seven families is describing their household as being hungry, one in six can’t pay their rent, and one in four small businesses are closing permanently or have already closed, so it’s a big issue in West Virginia and across the country,” Harris said. “And that’s why the president and I are offering the American Rescue Plan.”
But within a day, Thursday’s appearance (Jan. 28, 2021) was criticized by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., becoming an early test for Harris and an administration facing increasingly complex prospects for its goal of political unity.
Harris was a guest on WSAZ-TV, an NBC affiliate based in Huntington. But Manchin told the same station the following day that the White House had not contacted him about its persuasion efforts in his state. He noted that the White House was pushing a $1.9 trillion relief bill that had yet to win buy-in from all Democrats.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Manchin said. “No one called me. . . . We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward . . . but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together, what was done.”
The politics of the coronavirus relief package have proved complicated. Democrats last week began a procedure to pass it unilaterally, but 10 Senate Republicans on Sunday unexpectedly offered their own version, prompting President Biden to invite them to the White House on Monday.
The flare-up with Manchin, while minor in many ways, makes it clear how difficult it may be for Biden to achieve the unity he has called for – even within his own party.
The Senate is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with Harris as the tie-breaking vote if necessary. That means centrist Democratic senators, who are most likely to defect, will often control the fate of Biden’s initiatives. And none is more prominent than Manchin.
The episode also reflects the perilous landscape facing Harris as she seeks to build her brand for a potential second run at the presidency.
The television interview was among Harris’s first solo forays in the early weeks of the Biden administration. In most of her events so far, she has flanked Biden, looking on as he has signed executive orders and joining him for the President’s Daily Brief on national security matters.
In seeking the presidency, Harris would probably face many of the same struggles that have confronted generations of Democrats as they have tried to make inroads in blue-collar, industrial areas, including Appalachian communities like the one she addressed Thursday.
Harris’s appearance seemed to be part of an effort to pressure moderate senators, since she also spoke to a news station in Arizona, home to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who like Manchin is a centrist Democrat.
A Manchin spokesman declined to comment for this report or to make the senator available for an interview.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed that the administration has been in regular contact with Manchin, though she declined to provide details.
“We’ve been in touch with Senator Manchin, as we have been for many weeks and will continue to be moving forward,” Psaki said. “Not only is he a key partner to the president and to the White House on this package, but also on his [broader] agenda.”
But she said the administration also wants to make the case directly to Americans in interviews like Harris’s. High-ranking administration officials have made dozens of TV and radio appearances.
“Our focus is communicating with the American people about how the American Rescue Plan can help put food on the table and can help ensure we can get vaccines in the arms of Americans and help send kids back to school,” Psaki said.
Democrats are divided about how to wield their newly won power in Washington. Biden has stressed that he wants to reach across the aisle, but many liberals say the party should use its power to push through its agenda as quickly as possible, even without Republicans.
An adviser to Manchin said the senator recognizes that the landscape gives power to moderates like him. The adviser did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the senator’s behalf.
For Manchin, an early clash with the Biden-Harris administration could be a political boon.
He is the only Democrat elected statewide in West Virginia, holding his seat in 2018 even as Republicans surged on President Donald Trump’s coattails. Biden, meanwhile, was walloped in the state last year, earning about 30% of the vote.
Manchin has made inroads with groups that many Democrats have struggled to connect with, including factory workers, coal miners and steelworkers.
In 2008, Barack Obama, then a Democratic presidential candidate, made a costly mistake when talking about coal-mining and steel-mill towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest that were struggling economically.
“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” Obama said.
The statement reverberated, signaling to many an educated, out-of-touch Democrat unable to empathize with struggling blue-collar workers.
Manchin, meanwhile, has won reelection in part because he has avoided being cast as an aloof Democrat, the adviser said.
“His whole brand, the reason why he won, is he says he’s a West Virginia Democrat who’s going to do the right thing,” the adviser said. “He’s happy to work with Republicans when they have the right idea, and he says he’s happy to work against Democrats when they have the wrong idea.”