WASHINGTON - A key centrist U.S. Democratic lawmaker, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, helped broker passage of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, but declared Sunday that he remains opposed to eliminating the filibuster in the Senate to ease passage other progressive legislation.
In the politically divided chamber, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, Manchin played a center-stage role in shaping the virus relief aid. He agreed to keep the $300-a-week national government payments to jobless workers at their current level rather than raise the figure to $400 and to cut off tax relief for the unemployed if they had annual family income above $150,000.
"We targeted where help was needed," Manchin told CNN. "This is one tremendous piece of legislation. It's going to help a lot of people."
But until Manchin reached agreement with his more progressive Democratic allies in the Senate who wanted bigger financial assistance for the unemployed, passage of the relief aid remained in doubt. The House of Representatives is expected to approve the Senate version of the relief package in the coming days and send it to Biden for his signature, his first major legislative victory since taking office in January.
No Republican voted for the legislation in either chamber. In the Senate, that left Manchin, perhaps the most conservative of the 50-member Democratic caucus, with an outsized role in reaching agreement with his fellow Democrats even as he rejected overtures from Republican lawmakers to join them in approving a much-reduced coronavirus spending package.
"My Republican friends are my friends. They're not my enemies," he told the "Fox News Sunday" show. "And my Democrats are my colleagues, they're not my enemies either. That's my caucus."
But Manchin told Sunday talk shows he maintains his opposition to ending the legislative filibuster in the Senate, which some progressive Democrats want to do away with in order push through Biden's legislative agenda on 51-50 votes if need be, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
While simple majorities are enough to approve legislation in the House, 60 votes are often necessary in the Senate to end debate on controversial issues and move forward to a vote. If the filibuster is eliminated to thwart opponents from blocking key legislation, a Democratic majority, as is currently the case with the Harris tie-breaking vote, could pass legislation with a simple majority.
Manchin, however, says he won't accede to other Democrats wanting to change the Senate rules to end use of the filibuster, although he is open to make it more difficult to use, such as renewing the tradition from years past when filibustering lawmakers were required to hold the floor during Senate debates by speaking for hours without a recess.
"I'd make it harder to get rid of the filibuster, I'm supporting the filibuster, I'm going to continue to support the filibuster," Manchin said on Fox. "I think it defines who we are as a Senate. I'll make it harder to get rid of it, but it should be painful if you want to use it."
Manchin noted that in recent years it has become much easier to use the filibuster.
"It really should be painful, and we've made it more comfortable," he said.
The rules of Senate debate could come into play in the coming weeks over several Biden initiatives, including debate over a House-approved measure that would set national standards for the conduct of elections that Republicans oppose and whether to raise the U.S. minimum wage for workers from $7.25 an hour to $15.
Manchin on CNN said there is "not one senator opposed to increasing the minimum wage," although the debate centers on by how much and how quickly low-wage workers would be paid more. But a Biden bid to gradually raise the wage to $15 an hour was stripped from the coronavirus relief deal when several Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the provision.