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How Manchin's big role in spending bill negotiations is playing back in West Virginia


President Biden's budget package is now down to $1.75 trillion, in large part because of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. He's a Democrat in his heavily Republican state, and his deep ties to its coal industry have put him at odds with his party's push for a greener future. NPR's Dave Mistich reports on how Manchin's big role in the negotiations is playing among Democrats back home.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Joe Manchin has been a fixture in West Virginia politics for decades. And with a 50-50 Senate, he's also become a fixture in debates over Democrats' agenda, including Biden's spending plan. The conservative Democrat has demanded the proposal shrink in size. That's meant entire provisions have been left out, including free community college and paid family leave. His position as a negotiator hasn't set well with some Democrats back home.

SHANE ASSADZANDI: At some point, we have to stand up and say enough is enough. This is not acceptable. Like, you are hurting West Virginians by crippling this bill.

MISTICH: Shane Assadzandi chairs the Monongalia County Democratic Executive Committee. The group took aim at Manchin this week, saying they, quote, "deplore him for obstructing progress."

ASSADZANDI: He keeps moving the goalposts. Every time that he tells the Senate leaders, I want this out of the bill, they give in. And then he says, OK, now I want this.

MISTICH: Many in West Virginia say spending on social programs is sorely needed. Assadzandi also says the state needs to make the shift to clean energy. He points to the steady decline of coal jobs.

ASSADZANDI: I think we're doing the people of West Virginia disservice because we're essentially lying to them and saying this type of job is always going to be here, when it's not.

MISTICH: Of course, not every Democrat sees it that way.

MIKE CAPUTO: The Mon County Dems are their own body, and they have a right to their opinion and their discussion. I just don't see where things like that are productive in moving the issue at hand forward.

MISTICH: State Senator Mike Caputo represents Monongalia County, as well as Manchin's home county. A leader of the United Mine Workers of America, he's also a longtime associate of Manchin.

CAPUTO: Senator Manchin is going to be Senator Manchin, and, you know, he's going to play the role of the centrist here. I just hope that they can come to terms.

MISTICH: Manchin says he's acted in good faith throughout the process, but as of Thursday, had not explicitly endorsed the president's plan. That proposal includes hundreds of billions of dollars to address climate change. That's after Manchin had struck a key clean energy provision. Elizabeth Opyoke's family has deep ties to the coal industry, to Manchin himself and the coal brokering company he owns stock in, valued in the millions.

ELIZABETH OPYOKE: My dad and Joe have been friends for years and years and years. One of the buildings that the Enersystems is in now was actually owned by my family.

MISTICH: Opyoke now works for Solar Holler, helping West Virginians transition to clean energy. She says she's disappointed that Manchin has haggled for so long with his fellow Democrats, noting that recent polling shows West Virginians of both parties back clean energy initiatives like those pushed by the president. Opyoke says Manchin backing those provisions could be transformative for the state.

OPYOKE: He has a great opportunity to win over so, so many people and be the hero.

MISTICH: But in such an overwhelmingly conservative state, Manchin relies on more than just Democrats to get elected. And recent polling shows he's gained approval from Republicans, while losing support from Democrats since the beginning of the year.

Dave Mistich, NPR News, Morgantown, W.V. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich is the Charleston Reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. A native of Washington, West Virginia, Dave can be heard throughout week on West Virginia Public Radio, including during West Virginia Morning and Inside Appalachia. He also anchors local newscasts during Weekend Edition on Saturday mornings and covers the House of Delegates for The Legislature Today.
Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.