May 28, 2011

6 months on Capitol Hill: Manchin makes name as bipartisan in U.S. Senate | Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six months into his new job on Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has busily pursued a brand of consensus-building that helped him twice win the Governor's Mansion and continues to keep him in view of West Virginia voters as the 2012 election nears.

The 63-year-old Democrat has called for preserving the bulk of the federal health-care overhaul, while helping lead the charge to scrap some of its more unpopular provisions.

He has agreed with congressional Republicans who balk at increasing the federal debt limit without major budget changes, but he says he also seeks to shield social programs from significant cuts.

He has co-sponsored several bills with Republicans and co-hosted more than half a dozen bipartisan Senate lunches with Illinois GOP Sen. Mark Kirk. Their goal is to discuss the issues of the day and identify potential middle ground.

"I've tried everything to foster bipartisanship," Manchin said.

His bipartisan approach should come as no surprise, given the coalitions he built with groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce, leading to decisive victories in his 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial campaigns.

Nor should his vow to be independent surprise anyone. During last year's campaign, Manchin aired a now-famous TV ad that depicted him shooting the Obama administration's climate-change bill with a hunting rifle.

Kurt Helms was among Manchin's critics in 2010. The retired coal miner from Moundsville told the AP before the special election that Manchin was "just in lockstep with the Pelosi-Reid-Obama administration."

On Thursday, Helms, 61, gave Manchin high marks -- for now.

"I think he's doing a great job right now," he said, "but I'm waiting on something where there's a tight vote . . .  . Let's see what happens when it really counts, when the tire meets the road. Right now, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt."

Manchin's approach on Capitol Hill has raised his profile beyond the status normally reserved for the body's 85th most-senior member. Seniority is highly prized in the Senate, and Manchin is following the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, history's longest-serving member of Congress.

"I intend to always be a voice for West Virginia," Manchin said, "with or without seniority."

To that end, he has maintained almost constant contact with the state that gave him 53 percent of the vote in last year's race against Republican John Raese and a third-party candidate.

Manchin's office has conducted four statewide tours since January, with another aimed at veterans slated for this week. While his staff has visited all 55 counties, Manchin has appeared in 29 of them as a senator and logged more than 12,000 miles in the process. These tours have included nine courthouse visits, 11 "coffee and common sense" get-togethers and four town-hall-style meetings.

"We let people come in and speak their minds," Manchin said. "I'm still promoting retail government, service to the voters and not to yourself."

His office says it also has handled more than 1,800 constituent cases, usually involving problems with benefits for black lung, veterans, Medicare or Social Security.

Planning to seek a full six-year term in 2012, Manchin has been regularly attacked by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other GOP groups. They have slammed him for his votes on various issues or continue to try and link him to President Obama and the Senate's Democratic leadership.

By:  Lawrence Messina