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Sunday Sit-Down: U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin

March 4, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

-- You recently co-sponsored a bill, the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012," put forth by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. In fact, of the 30 co-sponsors, you were the only Democrat. How does it happen that a Democrat from West Virginia finds himself siding with 29 Republicans against an initiative put forth by the White House?

Manchin: Everybody in West Virginia knows I'm a pro-life Democrat, always have been, always will be. And with that, Marco and I started talking and we had these deep concerns ... about the First Amendment, the Constitution. ... That's also how we handled it in West Virginia in 2005. We passed legislation that said if you're going to sell health insurance policies, we want women to have access to contraceptives. But also we had to protect the Constitution to make sure that religious convictions were honored ... we did that, and I think we did that very well with a balanced approach.

I got a phone call from the White House, and the other pro-life Democrats were on the call, Dec. 3, and they told us about the ruling they were working on, and I asked them at that time to please, consider not going down that direction, I think there's a better way to do it. Well, they chose the direction they chose. I think even Vice President Joe Biden might have given the same thoughts. With that, there was a retraction, we haven't seen the final rule yet ... to see how the outcome is.

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I really don't look at an issue, whether it's 29 Democrats or 29 Republicans. I look at an issue as a West Virginian - if I can't come home and explain it, I'm not going to vote for it.

-- You may not look at it that way, but a lot of people in Washington do. Many politically minded people believe there's only three Democrats in the Senate - you, Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu - who will ever go against the party for any reason. Why is that?

Manchin: I think that's really the problem we're having in Washington right now. ... I saw where Rick Santorum said he had to take one for the team. He said he had to go along, I guess, to get along. I've had my side of the aisle come to me and say, 'You know this is going to be a party line,' and I say 'It might be a party line, but it's not West Virginia's line.' ... We're concerned about the jobs and the energy we produce, being able to have a balance between the environment and the economy, that's very important to us.

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My main concern I have right now - and the big differences I have with this administration - is that (no one seems to be taking anything seriously).

This is basically from the president, to the ... Republican leadership and the Democrat leadership in the Senate, about the financial concerns we have and the debt that we're carrying. And we keep contributing to it. And everybody's at fault. You can say 'well, it started under George Bush,' and it did, and it's continued under Obama. ... We've got a group of about 45 of us carved out of the middle, 23 Democrats, 22 Republicans, who are willing to say Bowles-Simpson's a good template, it's passed the test of time as far as being bipartisan. Let's get serious and fix the problem, but no, payroll extension, defunding Social Security, all those things. I've said, 'if you want to help people, and help the working class,' and I sure want to help the working class, why don't you give them a tax reform that gives them a break for many, many years, and not just a few months. ... If people quit playing to the pressures of the big national scene in Washington, and remember where they came from, and who sent them there and for what purpose, maybe they'd be voting more with what their state would want them to do.

-- What do you see among your fellow senators that makes them forget about the people who sent them to Washington?

Manchin: People basically say why have I been able to maintain my independence. I say ... I never forgot where I came from. I know my state very well, I know the people of the state of West Virginia, I've worked with them, I think they trust me, and I sure believe in them. I'm not going to change just because. That was the whole campaign that was used in 2010, the pressures of Washington. I'm sorry, I feel more obligated to the people of West Virginia than I would ever feel to anybody in Washington. And I've been up front and told them that. I said listen, it's just not who I am, I respect where you all come from, I cross over the aisle probably ... as much as anybody's ever done because I've found out if you want to fix things, if you want to do things, you pretty much need 60 votes. We've got 53 Democrats, so I'd like to find seven or eight good Republicans that, if we have a good issue ... that they would break and come over and say 'I'm sorry, that makes sense, I'm going to vote with the Democrats.' And on the other hand, if the Republicans have a good idea, there's 47 of them, they're going to need 13 or 14 of us. And if it's a good idea, I don't think well, it's a Republican idea and it's a slap in the face to the administration, I can go home and that's what people in West Virginia would want me to do, and that's how I vote.

-- Given the fact that you do oppose the party line from time to time, what type of outreach do you receive from Majority Leader Harry Reid?

Manchin: I will say this: we have our disagreements, but he has been so professional. He's a gentleman. ... From day one we didn't start out on the best of footing, because he'd been ... out about coal, and I said 'Harry, I don't know how I can support you.' And he said 'Joe, there's nobody running against me.' I said 'Harry, it's not that. It's basically what you've said and what you've done. Harry, this Cap and Trade thing, we need to kill this. I cannot, in good conscience ever, even if you're the only person running.' He said 'I tell you, that's going to be dead. It will not come up in the next Congress.' And I said fine, I appreciate that, and we started rebuilding a relationship that started very bad.

-- What about the White House?

Manchin: I don't have much interaction at all, I have not talked to the president since I've been there. The White House would contact my chief of staff or my office, but I ... can't really say that I've had hardly any interaction with them.

-- You've been in Washington for a little more than a year now, and in that time you've continued to fight the war being waged on coal. However, we continue to learn of power plant closings, new regulations being considered and other things happening - all of which make coal mining tougher. Realistically, is it too late to save the coal industry? Is the war on coal already over?

Manchin: No. There's going to be a coal industry, and this country's depending on the coal industry up until at least 2035, according to projections from the U.S. Department of Energy. Right now coal's producing about 45 percent of our energy for this country. Even by 2035, they'll still be depending about 39 percent, more than any other single source of energy. You take natural gas, another fossil, that's 26 percent projected. Then you take oil and (nuclear) on top of that, you're still only 80-81-82 percent range. I had (Energy) Secretary (Steven) Chu in the Energy Committee the other day, and I said 'Secretary, these are your own figures from your own agency. Right now, this is what we're depending upon as far as energy for our nation, and by 2035 we'll still be depending on this. But then this is the amount of money you're going to be investing into technology for energy, and I see where you're cutting coal down to 19 percent of your investment as far as for technology, and you've got renewables at 60-plus percent. Now I'm for wind, and I'm for solar, and I'm for renewables, but I'm realistic enough to understand even by your own figures, you only project that renewables will be producing less than 20 percent of the energy by 2035, as a matter of fact your figures say 16 percent. Coal's still close to 40 percent. Does it make any sense to you at all why you would decrease the funding for the energy you're depending on the most ... does that not look like you're trying to pick winners and losers? Can't we have a balanced approach - a proportionate approach?' I think it's basically me continuing in a very dogmatic style, but a very respectful and I think very factual style. We're telling our story. ... No one's been on the front line fighting about what coal has done, (the dependence on coal) today and what it will do. What natural gas, the Marcellus Shale coming on, what we can do. How we can be more secured as a nation, how we can be less dependent on foreign countries that we depend on for oil that has disrupted ... the economic condition of this country. ... I think we're making some inroads. I really do.

-- Staying with coal: 45 percent of the nation's electricity usage comes from coal. Coal is a cheap power source when compared to any of the alternatives, so you'd think you would be able to get support in the Senate for coal. Why, in your opinion, does that support appear to be lacking?

Manchin: You have to work a little bit harder because ... (many senators) look at coal and they look at everything that we have done as a way of life that maybe they don't think should be done anymore. I go to different meetings and I say you know what, I come from a coal producing state, an energy producing state, and every one of you, whether you're in California, wherever you are in this country, you ought to get down on your knees every night and say a prayer for the coal miners and the coal operators who provide the energy and give you the life you have. Because without the abundant energy that we've had domestically, that's been affordable, dependable and reliable, we would not have been able to win the wars we've won, build the industrial might, build the middle class, do any of this. That being said, we have the ability to go to the next phase, and that next phase is using (coal) much cleaner with more technology. But we've got a government that's not embracing this right now. ... Dan Coats, Republican from Indiana, and I introduced a bill that ... was a balanced approach, one that we basically worked out together with industry and labor, saying listen, we need you to identify which (power) plants you're going to close because of the age of the plants, they need to be closed anyway. Once you identify which plants you're going to close, identify which plants you're going to retrofit with billions of dollars in investment. You want a real jobs bill, we'll give you a jobs bill. We have proven that when we do the scrubbers and ... all the different technologies that we need to burn coal cleaner in our existing plants, especially all up and down the river, a tremendous amount of money is spent, a tremendous amount of resources are needed and an awful lot of labor and good jobs are created. ... We've already eliminated about 80 percent of the particulates out of the air over the last two decades. We can continue to do more. But the government for some reason doesn't understand, they're going to have to understand because I believe they're going to hit the proverbial brick wall when the price and the cost and the reliability (of electricity) is all going to come together and create tremendous pressures for the consumer.

-- One more coal-related question: We know that gasoline and other fuels can be made from coal, and we also know that federal programs providing loan guarantees for alternative energy programs currently have a balance of about $10 billion. Given that, why hasn't some of this money been used to further develop coal liquefaction technologies?

Manchin: Today (Feb. 24), my whole day's been spent here in the Monongalia County/Morgantown area. We went to a bioscience company this morning, (witnessed) the great innovation and creation they've had and what they're doing with devices that will change the health care industry for the world. Then we go over to NETL, the National Energy Technology Lab, to see what they're doing in research and technology, how they've developed the Marcellus Shale and the technology to extract the liquids from the (natural) gas. So we see that and we see the potential we have there.

Then we go and talk with the alternative fuels people, see first-hand the vehicles, all the different things we can do in transportation by using the energy that we produce right here - the natural gas, the electricity from coal, the electric and hybrid cars. Then we go to Eco Logic, the people that support all this technology. The thing that I see is that we have the ability to continue to be not only an energy leader, but an energy and technology leader, all in one. And we just need this administration, we need the EPA, we need all of them working together ... it's all about the security of this nation.

... I'll give you a perfect example: the XL Pipeline. I never even hesitated. I know West Virginia, and I know if someone says 'Guess what, we've got a new pipeline and it's going to come from our dearest friend, our best neighbor and our best trading partner in Canada. And it will replace some of the oil we are now depending on from let's say Venezuela or from the Middle East - from countries that are not friendly and do not wish to do us any good at all. In fact, they use the money that we transfer to them buying their product against us. What would you want to do? My response was this: I would rather buy from my friends than my enemies. I can't figure out why the president or anybody else could be against this. I know they're saying it's about health and environmental concerns. I also know that the State Department did an environmental impact and said it was fine, they approved it. But the EPA comes in and now we've got two federal agencies going at it. That's not how we're going to do business, it's not how I intend to, so we got a group of people together trying to move a piece of legislation.

-- You had a strong record of getting things done when you were governor of West Virginia by building consensus among legislators. How much harder do you find consensus building to be in the Senate - and why?

Manchin: It's extremely hard. I know one thing, when I was governor, I was the elected leader. ... I was able to set the agenda, and once you're able to set the agenda you can move the ball. Coming in as one of 100, the leadership is basically the executive branch, the president and his administration, and you have the leadership because of seniority in the Senate, which is going to be the Democrats and Republicans. When leadership can't get along, and can't come to a single direction or purpose of what they're trying to accomplish ... you know, (when I was governor) we always picked our priorities based on our values. I didn't let them play games. ... We picked what was really important for West Virginia, and then we had fun with the political (process). And that's fine. I think that probably most West Virginians never felt seven years ago that we could get our state in this good of shape. But I knew it could be done, and that takes determination, you've got to be willing to work across the aisle. I never looked at it and said, 'Well, if I do this, it might make the Republicans look good and they'll get credit for it.' And I told all the Democrats, listen, the best politics is good government. We do something good and we all have credit for it.

-- How much more intense is lobbying in Washington - both by the lobbyists themselves and others - than in Charleston?

Manchin: Oh my gosh, it's a whole different league. You're really, truly in the professional league (in Washington). ... The money involved in politics to get elected, and you spend most of your time trying to fundraise, it's just crazy. If we spent half as much time in policy making, working together as we did out fundraising, or supposedly out politicking, it'd be a much better world. And how do you stop that money? I know people have tried, both the Democrats and Republicans, the McCain-Feingold Act ... well intended, but if anything it just made it worse. And then the courts jump in and make the findings that they do and just exasperate the problem.

-- Tell us what you think it is going to take to responsibly address deficit spending.

Manchin: I would definitely take the Bowles-Simpson template that we have that basically puts us on the path to recovery. We've got the Democrats and all my Democrat friends afraid to even talk about the social programs that we have. You don't have to change the social programs - you can protect Social Security, you can protect Medicare, you can protect Medicaid - if you find the purpose of what we're supposed to be doing with them, which is to protect the people ... that have paid into it, the people that have worked, it's a contract, assistance to their retirement. That's the purpose of Social Security.

We have Medicaid, trying to help people who have fallen on hard times get back on their feet. That's the purpose of it, and I'm proud those were all Democrat initiatives.

Then you have Medicare, again, as we grow older, we have health care that we can rely on. But what happens is the fraud, abuse and waste ... I think we can come together and agree to run them more efficiently without being attacked, saying you're against these programs. My goodness, I want to protect those programs. My mother, my aunts, my family members all depend on those programs, the same as yours.

On the other side, you have the Republicans saying we want no new revenue, we're not going to raise taxes. But let me ask you, if you run this more efficiently, stop the loopholes, offset some credits, the millionaires, billionaires ... pay their fair share, and they can't use the passive capital gains to pay lower rates and on and on and on, wouldn't that be better. And if we get an extra trillion or two trillion or three trillion, can't we agree that we pay most of that down toward debt, the other toward infrastructure, rebuild America. The war we've got going on that we should be out of, people afraid to talk about the Department of Defense. ... This whole thing doesn't make sense. Everyone's afraid because they're afraid it's going to be used against you. I said gentlemen, we need revenue, and we don't have to raise taxes. You don't have to raise taxes. I think the president had a step in the right direction by saying we're going to revamp the whole corporate tax system by lowering the rate, not raising it, but shutting down an awful lot of the giveaways, if you will. We can do that across the board. ... Republicans need to join with us and say fine, we can do that, as long as you agree that the new money we spend will go toward deficit reduction and infrastructure. ... We've got to make this work and there's going to be a core of us in the middle that will make it work.

-- Last question: The Big 12 Conference. How excited are you now that WVU is set to begin play later this year?

Manchin: I'm very excited about the Big 12, and I think the Big 12 can create a perception. ... If we had lost that (bid) ... if that didn't come to full fruition to where we were in, that would have been very harmful to the state of West Virginia. I was very determined not to let anybody - even the leader of the Republican Party (Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell ) - I would hope he would understand that I'm going to defend mine, I'm not going to back down from the President of the United States, him or anybody else. It wasn't personal. But I'm going to fight for my state. ... The ramification was more than just a football conference. It was really the ... whole perception of the state of West Virginia. ... I understand (McConnell) retaliated back by going and recruiting (Republican John) Raese. If that's the game they want to play, they'll have to play that game because I'm going to try to fix the problems we've got in this country to help West Virginia.

 
 

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