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With vaccine distribution beginning this week, America can finally see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel. But that tunnel remains several months long, and that means economic pain and hardship for millions across the U.S.

Axios Re:Cap speaks with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who's helping spearhead a bipartisan and bicameral effort to get economic stimulus passed, about the odds of success and what's in the plan.

Full Transcript

Dan Primack: We're joined now by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senator, let's just talk with kind of big picture probabilities here. I know you have a bill that's been split into two parts. How confident are you that one or both of those parts could actually get passed by both houses of Congress by the end of this week?

Senator Joe Manchin: Well, what we did, we took the $748 billion bill, which has 100% support both Democrats and Republicans. And that one will pass. It has to, because this is an emergency relief COVID bill. And emergency means that what do people lose by Christmas or the end of the year? All their lifelines are gone.

OK. The businesses are having more trouble because they're closing down more now because of the outbreak of the COVID. And this is not going to end probably until the second quarter I would think of next year. So this gets us up to April 1 first quarter. That's an emergency bill.

The other bill, basically it's $160 billion for state and local, which they're hurting too. And we're trying to do that. I voted for both. My name’s on both of them, but the other one has more concerns with Democrats and Republicans about basically the protections against any type of lawsuits. And Democrats saying, that's fine. I don't think we want anybody to be sued out of business, but we don't want to just throw caution to the wind and workplace safety, things of this sort. So they're trying to work through that. All the smart lawyers are trying to find language that they can either all agree to or confuse each other. Not that they don't know what they've said. One of the two.

DP: So on that first one on the larger package, you said emergency COVID relief, the extended unemployment benefits, reauthorization, PPP, etc. You expressed that you're confident. Have you, say, spoken with Mitch McConnell about getting that on the floor this week?

JM: They're basically taking our bill and putting it into the omnibus bill, which has to pass at the end, you know, for us to have government continue — the spending package. That's the end of the year omnibus bill. They're using our template — our bill. They're taking our bill section by section because it's already been vetted. We already had legislative language written. It's ready to go.

DP: Can I just ask specifically either you or any of the other kind of, I guess it's 11 senators now, have any of you had direct conversations with McConnell to be sure it gets there.

JM: Yes. I've been talking to on the Democrat staff and basically Lisa and Susan Collins and all, and, and Cassidy and Portman have been working on their side and making sure that's the framework. They're going to acknowledge that today as a framework they're working off of.

DP: I wonder, you know, the things that both sides agree on, as you say, that there's so much of this, that both Democrats and Republicans agree on and have agreed on for months at this point.

Monday morning quarterbacking a little bit: Was it a mistake, do you think, for Democrats to not take the so-called skinny bills that the Republicans were offering back in September and October? Because since those were things that both sides agreed on and that money would be flowing already?

JM: Well, the money could have been flowing already, but the money is needed now. This is when it all expired. So why would they take something when it should have been a lot more? They started, if you remember Daniel, this started basically with $3 trillion deal called the Heroes, which is Nancy Pelosi's. Then she cut that down to $2 trillion. And then we had basically Mitch McConnell had his Hills act at $1.1 trillion, and that was in July, sent us home for recess in August, which we should have never gone home, and then we come back after recess in September, he's got a new bill on called the skinny at $500 million.

And I'm thinking, ‘Wow, that's not dealing in good faith’. Every economist, everybody has looked and seen the need. We had to keep this economy going. And the lowest I ever saw anyone go to was $1.5. trillion. So here we are, then I'm understanding they start negotiating with Mnuchin and Nancy Pelosi. And Mnuchin before the election came in for $1.8, for whatever reason, that was turned down. And then basically we were at a stand still.

The election’s over, the election is over on the 4th. I call my friend Susan Collins and congratulate her on her victory on the 5th. We start talking. So Susan, we've got to do something. They're not going anywhere. And this is a stalemate. They weren’t even talking. So she said, you're right. So we started talking to all of our friends. At Lisa’s, we have a dinner, then a week or two later, at Lisa’s, after we'd all been talking, at Lisa Murkowski’s house, and we have four Democrats and four Republicans. And that's how all this started. And we committed to each other we would stay bipartisan all the way through.

So with that, we had Mark Warner. We had basically on the Democrat side, myself, Mark Warner, we had Jeanne Shaheen and we had Dick Durbin. On the Republican side, we had Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, we had Bill Cassidy and Mitt Romney. So we had four and four. That was, that was the first eight. And then we grew immediately from that and brought in the problem solvers from the house — Josh. So we had bicameral now. We had Josh Gottheimer and Tom Reed. Then it grew from that some more because people said we want something to happen. That's how we got to seven.

DP: When you say you want it, that people want something to happen. You are getting some pushback, to be honest on both sides. Bernie Sanders, Josh Hawley, so from the left and the right specifically on this issue of direct checks, which we saw in the Cares Act, you know, back in April. What's the best argument for not including that in this bill?

JM: Well, the only argument that we have is not just best — it is the argument. It's the commonsense approach. This is an emergency bill. If a person still has a paycheck. A person still has a job and they have money coming to their home, and there's an unemployed person who's going to lose everything at the end of December, they got no job to go to. We've had everybody closed down because of all the jobs and economy has gone away. And basically the pandemic is back and ravaging. So they have nothing. Which one's the emergency?

DP: Well the same argument could have been made back in April, correct?

JM: Oh, yeah, you can make the same argument. That's you know, when we did another extension, you know, the big bill you're talking about.

DP: Well, right. Because I mean, I'm saying you supported the Cares Act and that same thing was true. Right? There were people who hadn't lost their jobs in April, who continued to get paychecks, but we still sent out checks to those people back in April.

JM: They were trying to stimulate the economy, OK. But when had a deadlock, Daniel, there's a deadlock and nothing was moving. When you have a deadlock, you can't throw everything and think everything's going to stick and everybody's going to go along with it. So we knew what we had to deal with. It took us two weeks just to negotiate what would be our amount. To get to $908 billion, that took two weeks of back and forth, putting the emergencies together, putting what people wanted and desires together.

We would take an extra $300 in a heartbeat. That's $1,200 a person. That's $1.2 trade to continue to stimulate this economy. Joe Biden's coming in in January, our President, he will evaluate it immediately, talk to his economists and come with a plan forward.

DP: Speaking of that plan forward, has your group spoken with Biden about that plan forward and what he wants to do Jan. 20?

JM: We have not. He's waiting to see what we do right now. If we can even fill the gap that's going to be left. He's going to be in one heck of a precarious situation. This country will be in a free fall if we don't pass this COVID emergency relief package now.

DP: Speaking of which, that second piece, the state and local, including the liability, you talk about the lawyers are trying to figure it out right now. Is there any particular reason for Americans to believe that that piece will indeed get passed at least before Jan. 20, no matter who wins in Georgia?

JM: You're talking about the state and local?

DP: Correct. The state local.

JM: First of all. So you’ll know, the Republican, my Republican friends, truly, the majority of their caucus does not believe that the states and local need any money. They truly believe that. So we've got them and we showed them. I said, this is based on need.

Before it went out on population, whatever the population was. That's what you got. The smallest states all got $1.25 billion. Then everything was based on need. This one's based on need. And I'm saying, listen, if there's a need in an emergency, you might not have a need in your state, but I can tell you, a lot of other states are going to lose front-line service — first responders, essential workers. They can't keep this program alive, and they're going to have to tax the living crap out of people just to try to keep anything surviving.

So we got them to agree to that, OK. That was a big move. But they wanted to make sure the need base was there. That means: What's your revenue loss? What's your expenses, COVID related? So you just can't get money. They got a third, a third of the money went out on population, not 100%. The rest of the two-thirds of money went based strictly on need, Daniel, strictly on need.

DP: Back over the summer, it seemed, at least from the outside, looking in, most of the negotiations were going on between Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin in the White House. At this point, is the White House any tangible part of these discussions?

JM: Everybody's been kept abreast. This has not been done in secrecy.

DP: I don't mean secrecy, but are they actually at the table?

JM: No, no, leadership's not at the table. Mitch and Chuck and his staff is not at the table.

OK, neither is the White House. But everything that we have done, and when we come to an agreement, we want them to know what we've agreed on so that it's not going to be a surprise. They've been kept abreast of all the things that we've been able to agree on, which I think they've been pleased because for whatever reasons, they couldn't get to that point in their negotiations. But we were able to break through and that's really what bipartisanship is.

You know, bipartisanship is uncomfortable because you have to have concessions. You gotta be willing to get compromise. And people don't want to compromise because everybody's in a tribal mode. ‘I got my side. I'm on this tribe and my tribe’s right. And we're going to win.’

I'm sorry, government doesn't work that way in America.

DP: Final question for you. Speaking of that, tribalism. A possible hypothetical: Were the democratic candidates to win the two Senate seats in Georgia, you'd have a 50-50 Senate. There's a perception that you, you Sen. Manchin, would become arguably the swing vote in the Senate, the most important senator there. How do you kind of conceive of that? And are you excited about that prospect? Are you nervous about that prospect?

JM: I'm not excited or nervous. I'll just continue to do what I've always done. I'm the most centrist voter out of 535 people in Congress. Do you know that? If you look at the vote, I'm about 50-50. How can you be in one party or the other party and still vote 50-50?

Well, where I come from, I'm a dem- a proud West Virginia Democrat. I've never met a Democrat who was always right. And I've never met Republicans that were always wrong, and I've liked a lot of their ideas. So I always say this, if I can go home and explain it, Daniel, I can vote for it. I don't care if it's a hardcore Democrat position. If it makes no sense back home in West Virginia, I can't vote it to support it. And I've kept to that and I will continue to keep to that.

So I've told them, I'm not voting to end the filibuster. I will not vote. I will not vote to pack the court. So if I'm the one vote, I want you to know up front that's what's going to happen. So don't get upset.

DP: Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us.

JM: Thank you, Daniel. Enjoyed it.

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