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Manchin rails against Biden’s clean energy plans as he faces tough political headwinds in West Virginia

<i>Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images</i><br/>Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on March 22.
The Washington Post via Getty Im
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on March 22.

By Ella Nilsen, CNN

West Virginia political observers were not surprised when Sen. Joe Manchin appeared on Fox News on Monday to make a stunning threat: He could be persuaded to vote to repeal his own bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, if the Biden administration pushed him far enough.

The conservative Democratic senator reiterated this to CNN, saying he would “look for every opportunity to repeal my own bill” if the administration continued to use the IRA to steer the US quickly towards the clean energy transition and away from fossil fuels.

The IRA, passed and signed into law last year, was a sweeping $750 billion bill that lowered prescription drug costs, raised taxes on large corporations, and invested $370 billion into new tax credits for cleaner energy. Even though Manchin carved out space for fossil fuels, the bill represents by far the biggest climate investment in US history.

From the start, Manchin has insisted the IRA was an “energy security bill,” rather than a clean-energy bill. Still, experts said he must be sensitive to the idea that he ushered in what ended up being the nation’s largest climate law, given he represents West Virginia — a state where coal and natural gas reign supreme.

Manchin’s repeal threat “was probably good politics,” West Virginia University political science professor Sam Workman told CNN. If he decides to seek reelection in 2024, the 75-year-old senator will face his toughest political fight yet, as popular West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice jumped into the race this week.

Justice’s bid for the seat “doesn’t change anything at all,” Manchin told CNN. But political experts from his home state see a man who is gearing up for a fight.

Since delivering President Joe Biden one of his biggest legislative wins with the IRA last summer, Manchin has spent the last few months on a rampage against the administration, homing in on what he calls its “radical climate agenda.” Manchin has voted against Biden’s nominees for high-ranking administration positions, bashed new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency and Treasury Department and clashed with members of the president’s cabinet at Senate hearings.

Manchin’s appearance on Fox to slam Biden and threaten to repeal the law he had an outsized role in writing “is a pretty good indicator to me that he’s running,” said John Kilwein, chair of West Virginia University’s political science department.

In for a tough fight

Manchin has been silent on whether he’ll run for reelection, but as Justice announced his candidacy, Manchin expressed confidence. “Make no mistake, I will win any race I enter,” he said in a statement.

The Democrat beat his Republican challenger by just three percentage points in 2018. And though Justice still must get through a primary against Republican Rep. Alex Mooney, the governor is already backed by Senate Republicans’ electoral arm and many in the state think he will present a serious challenge to Manchin.

“Justice is a likable candidate — he takes that ‘aw shucks’ thing to the next level,” Kilwein said. “This is going to be [Manchin’s] toughest fight, but I think anyone who thinks this is going to be a piece of cake is wrong. I don’t think he’s going to be easy to beat.”

Manchin is “in danger” politically, his Democratic colleague Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told CNN.

“Joe Manchin is the last remaining statewide elected Democrat [in West Virginia], and we want [him] back in the United States Senate,” Blumenthal said, adding Manchin was a “pillar of strength to Democrats in the last session.”

Justice made little mention of Manchin during his official campaign launch but came out swinging against Biden and his agenda. On Friday, Justice told Fox News that Manchin “would be a formidable opponent” if he runs for reelection, but added that he’s “done some things that have really alienated an awful lot of West Virginians.”

There is no denying that West Virginia is incredibly conservative; the state went nearly 40 percentage points for Trump in the 2020 election. But even with those fundamentals, political experts said Manchin has had tremendous staying power through retail politics and argue he can deliver for the state while standing up to Biden.

“His whole appeal is a retail appeal; every blueberry festival, huckleberry festival, Joe Manchin’s there,” former West Virginia political science professor Patrick Hickey told CNN. “He’s a really smart and talented politician. He gets all the benefits that come from supporting (the IRA), but the next time he’s in West Virginia, he’ll be in a diner telling voters how terrible Biden is.”

A political tightrope

Behind the political rhetoric, the Inflation Reduction Act’s energy provisions could be a windfall for West Virginia, and Manchin is walking a tightrope in his messaging around the law.

Despite blasting the Biden administration, Manchin has spent the past few months at home touting the benefits of the IRA and jobs it is already bringing to the state.

Several major clean energy companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build new manufacturing plants in the state: a battery factory, a new industrial facility totally powered by renewable energy, and a plant to make electric school buses.

“The way Manchin talked about those, he’s crediting the IRA and saying, ‘see, these are the good things that have happened,'” said Angie Rosser, executive director of environmental group West Virginia Rivers. “Those are hundreds of jobs reaching into the thousands, which for our small state is a big, big deal.”

Rosser and others pointed out that Manchin designed the IRA specifically to deliver money to West Virginia, designing tax credits to incentivize more manufacturing in coal country and funding to help these communities during the transition to clean energy.

Morgan King, a staff member of West Virginia Rivers, has been traveling across the state recently to talk to local officials about how they can apply for federal IRA funding. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, King told CNN.

“We’ve spoken with people of all parties,” she said. “People don’t care [about] the politics of how this bill was created so long as this funding can make it into their communities. West Virginia is set to disproportionately benefit from this bill more than any other state.”

Taking aim at Biden’s climate policies

Manchin has been at odds with the Biden administration on several fronts, but the administration’s climate policies and implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act seem to have struck a particular nerve — and Republicans have continued to heavily criticize the law.

A political ad from Republican dark money group One Nation is already circulating in the state, claiming that the IRA would kill 100,000 jobs in West Virginia.

“The notion that this is just a climate bill … it is damaging here in the state because we’re pretty far to the right on these issues, especially energy issues,” Workman said. “When you sell something as a climate bill, given the economic context here and our history, it’s somewhat harder for people to see indirect benefits like jobs.”

Manchin recently voted alongside Republicans on Congressional Review Act bills to undo EPA emissions rules for heavy-duty trucks as well as a climate-focused Labor Department rule (Biden has already vetoed one and promised to veto the other). In March, Manchin tanked top Interior Department nominee Laura Daniel-Davis, claiming she wasn’t upholding a part of the IRA that mandates offshore oil drilling in certain federal waters.

The dynamic has put Senate Democrats in a tough spot. Democrats have a slightly expanded Senate majority after the midterms, but the continued absence of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been away from Washington as she recovers from shingles, has made for nailbiter votes.

“He’s one of the most independent US senators out there,” Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii told CNN. “When he is frustrated, he’s not going to be shy about it. And right now, he’s obviously extremely frustrated with the administration, and that has to get sorted.”

Manchin has also spent the last few months lobbing a steady stream of blistering statements aimed at Biden’s agencies. When the Environmental Protection Agency proposed strong new vehicle emissions regulations intended to push the US auto market towards electric vehicles in the next decade, Manchin said the agency was “lying to Americans” and called the regulations “radical” and “dangerous.”

And when the Treasury Department issued guidance on IRA’s new EV tax credits — which were written by Manchin — the senator called it “horrific” and said it “completely ignores the intent” of his law.

Some of his Democratic colleagues have panned his comments about repealing the IRA.

“Maybe he should run for president,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told CNN. “He’s got one job; the president’s got another. The IRA is working.”

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