Feb 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Inside Schumer’s frayed relationship with Manchin

Photo illustration of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg, Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The failed Build Back Better negotiations have left the relationship between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) severely strained.

  • Both senators — and their staffs — quietly question whether the other side can be trusted, four sources close to the situation told Axios.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned the breach will affect any effort to revive President Biden's BBB agenda. A medical absence by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) already deprives Schumer of a reliable party vote.

  • The discord also has the potential to spill over to upcoming negotiations with the House on a China competitiveness bill, legislation to fund the government and revisions to the 1887 Electoral Count Act.
  • Initially, Democrats were more frustrated with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for her opposition to raising certain taxes, but key negotiators concluded she had clear red lines — and articulated them cleanly.
  • "Joe Manchin and I go back a long way and this is not the first time we have had a strong disagreement," said a statement from Schumer. "Obviously, I let him know my point of view and try to persuade him. We're always able to talk to each other and that has not changed.”
  • “Chuck and I have worked together for a long time, and he has always known I have a deep commitment to governing in a bipartisan way. I respect the difficult job he has as majority leader in a 50-50 Senate," Manchin told Axios.
  • "But my approach to governing and my representation of the people of West Virginia has never changed.”

Behind the scenes: Schumer's frustration with Manchin, and vice versa, built throughout the year.

  • While the two have a long history, they have never had to deal with each other under the pressure of a 50-50 Senate.
  • By the time the Senate was considering the Build Back Better agenda, the mutual suspicion had metastasized and the two senators felt they needed to commit their positions in writing. They both signed a July agreement that became public in September, capping Manchin's spending at $1.5 trillion.
  • While the mere existence of such a unique document befuddled fellow senators, the implication was clear: doubt and distrust ran high in their relationship.

Both the White House and Schumer feel betrayed by Manchin for how he negotiated over BBB, convinced the senator privately agreed to items only to later abandon them.

  • Manchin then chose Fox News to announce that talks were over, rubbing salt into the wound by picking a conservative outlet to give funeral rites to the president's signature plan.
  • Manchin, for his part, never thought the White House and Schumer were being honest about the true cost of the spending proposals, the sources told Axios.

Schumer-world views Manchin as a slippery-on-detail attention addict who's impossible to pin down, will change his mind numerous times and negotiate in public, Axios is told.

  • By contrast, Sinema avoids the Sunday talk show circuit and rarely gives national interviews.
  • Relations between Schumer and Sinema aren't great either, but they're currently better than between the majority leader and Manchin.
  • "[Schumer] thinks she [Sinema] is very smart and she's into the substance," said a source with direct knowledge of the relationship. "She may not come out the right way but she's not using the strategy, if you can call it a strategy, that Manchin's using that is infuriating and insulting."
  • A Sinema spokesperson declined to comment.

The big picture: In light of Luján's absence, the majority leader will need a united Democratic front to notch victories on any of the pending bills.

  • Schumer and Manchin, along with the White House, will have to rebuild trust if they want to get a smaller version of Build Back Better to President Biden's desk before Election Day.
  • "It's important that Sen. Manchin be respected and heard and that we find a path forward," said a Democratic senator.

Flashback: In 2018, Schumer all but begged Manchin to run for re-election, knowing his victory in West Virginia could one day make him leader.

  • During the Obama era, Schumer was the protector of the so-called Big Five, a group of centrist Democrats from red states.
  • He also leaned on Manchin for his advice on hot-button cultural issues, including gun control.

Fast forward: Schumer is now decidedly noncommittal if he will support Manchin — and Sinema — in their 2024 primary contests.

  • Manchin has scoffed at Schumer's position, all but laughing at the prospect the majority leader may endorse a more progressive candidate — and one who could win in West Virginia.

But, but, but: On judicial appointments, Manchin hasn't shown any willingness to buck his party and sink a Biden judge or justice.

  • He did just that with Neera Tanden, the president's first pick to head the Office of Management and Budget.

The bottom line: The two men are still on speaking terms and mutual interests may still ease the way to a compromise.

  • If Manchin thinks a deal on climate and child care is good for West Virginia, he'll vote for it, the sources told Axios.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) rarely gives national interviews. An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that she rarely granted interviews in her home state.

Go deeper