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West Virginia Senator Aims To Block Historic Voting Rights Bill

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington, where attention is focused on West Virginia - or at least its two U.S. senators. West Virginia is not a big state, not accustomed to outsized influence on politics here in the nation's capital. But right now moderate Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito are both central to President Biden's legislative agenda. The White House can't bring along its Democratic majority without bringing along Senator Manchin, and yesterday he published an op-ed saying he will vote against the major voting legislation pending in the Senate. That effectively ends any chance Democrats of having - of passing the legislation on their own. Meanwhile, Capito has been the Republican point person on Biden's massive infrastructure plan.

Well, we wanted to talk about the role each of these West Virginia politicians is playing and what their mandate is from voters at home. And to do that, I am joined by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Dave Mistich.

Welcome to you both.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

KELLY: Hey. So, Sue, you kick us off. Tell us a little bit more about Manchin, Capito - where they fit into each of their parties.

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, right now they're two of the most critical figures in the Congress and to the fate of the Biden agenda, whatever it may end up being. It's why they can barely walk down a hallway in the U.S. Capitol without being mobbed by reporters. I think it's fair to describe them both as moderates - I think both in terms of how they see themselves, the kind of policies they support and their temperaments. I mean, Manchin's always had a bit of a flashier personality on Capitol Hill, but these are not two people who have ever been seen as bomb-throwers. They have reputations of working across the aisle. And I would say, on a personal level, their Senate colleagues generally like them both very much.

KELLY: Dave, are they generally liked very much at home, back home in West Virginia?

MISTICH: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. I mean, to describe them - I'll start with Manchin. As someone who grew up here, I can say that there's always been a distinction between a Washington Democrat and a West Virginia Democrat. That gap has seemed to widen over time as national Democrats have become more progressive. But Manchin, he's planted himself in the middle as a moderate, almost conservative in his point of view. West Virginia progressives are understandably frustrated with that. So Democrats here are split on him. But the way the state looks as a whole, I think that kind of keeps him safe. On a lot of complicated issues, like this voting rights legislation, he doesn't necessarily reflect the view of most or all of the Democratic Party, but his views are reflective of most of the rest of the state of West Virginia. He's a unique character who's always been a force here in politics. And whether people believe him or not, more than anything else, he seems very committed to not having one party being in control.

KELLY: How about Senator Capito?

MISTICH: That's right. And she's slightly different. When January 6 happened, she was really quick to put the blame on then-President Trump. And, you know, leading up to that event, she knows that Trump is really popular here. But, you know, I got to say that she hedges what she says. You know, she tries to be realistic about how much support he has here but also be realistic about the realities of that administration and the rhetoric that came from it. That position has seemed to serve her really well. For example, you know, Manchin had a progressive primary challenger in 2018 who got 30% of the vote in that election, and to be honest, that's seemingly unthinkable for Senator Capito. There's more unification around her among Republicans here.

KELLY: And just quickly, what is their relationship like? 'Cause they go way back. I think I read that they first met when he came out to measure carpet (laughter) for her house. This is back in the '70s.

MISTICH: Right. I mean, I think it's fair to say that, you know, there's a genuine respect with them. They've known each other for decades, of course. And the two of them are genuinely friends. You know, they worked together when Republicans controlled Congress under President Trump, and now that Democrats hold Congress, Manchin wants her to play a role, too. He said that he supports her efforts to reach an infrastructure deal with President Biden.

KELLY: All right, Sue, back to the position they occupy in Washington, the unique position of power in relationship to President Biden's agenda for each of them.

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, part of this is by design; part of this is just the fate and effect of elections. Capito is the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee. That, by design, gives her infrastructure as her lane, as her expertise. In terms of the power equation, she's also a top ally and a counselor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. So when she's at the negotiating table, there's an implication here that she has the support of the leadership behind her. And that could be powerful towards cutting a deal and bringing Republicans along. With Manchin, it's really, honestly just more about math and the realities of this 50-50 Senate. If Democrats had three, four, five more seats, his swing vote would not be the cause of so much speculation and attention right now, but that political reality has given him a tremendous amount of power. And as he has outlined in that op-ed, he is willing to use it in ways that might upset his own party more than Republicans sometimes.

KELLY: And in terms of what they might actually be able to accomplish, just to focus on infrastructure...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KELLY: And this deal that Senator Capito is trying to hammer out, the two sides sound like they are still really far apart. Is she going to be able to get something done?

DAVIS: I mean, I think there's a lot of skepticism now that they're going to be able to do this. There's just a tremendous amount of difference between Republicans and Democrats and where they remain on this bill. Biden and Capito are going to talk again this week, but you already have Democrats saying, look; it's time to move on. This is silly. We're not going to get them on board. We could go it alone. The problem Democrats have here is they're not confident they have the 50 votes they need to go it alone because of, yes, senators like Joe Manchin.

KELLY: Yeah. Dave, I'm going to give you our remaining moments here. You know, if they don't manage to get something done, if there's no infrastructure bill, if there's no big voting bill, how does that play in West Virginia?

MISTICH: Well, I think people here are hopeful, but they're frustrated by the lack of movement. You know, the difference between $1.7 trillion and a trillion is a lot, but it seems like a lot of quibbling to a lot of people here. I'll say that, you know, we have crumbling infrastructure in the state, as bad as any place else in the nation. And I looked it up - the U.S. News & World Report ranks the state 50th in that category. And I'll say there's just, generally, a lot of skepticism that a jobs package that comes along with this could replace something that was as dominant as the coal industry.

KELLY: Well, thank you very much to you both for your reporting.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

MISTICH: Thank you.

KELLY: I've been talking with Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and NPR's Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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