On a frosty night in February, Joe Manchin III, the senior senator from West Virginia, invited a few colleagues over for dinner aboard the houseboat he docks on the Potomac. In the past, opponents have sought to highlight the vessel for political effect; a 2018 advertisement by the National Republican Senatorial Committee called it a “$700,000 D.C. luxury yacht.” (In response, Manchin’s office reported that he bought it, used, for two hundred and twenty thousand dollars.) The boat—which he named Almost Heaven, after John Denver’s description of West Virginia in “Take Me Home, Country Roads”—resembles a small ferry; it is sixty-five feet long and boxy, with tinted windows. It serves as a residence on the nights he is in Washington, but also as a political prop. For voters who dislike the government, it allows Manchin, a seventy-three-year-old Democrat in his third term, to say that he could weigh anchor and escape anytime; for friends in politics, it provides an offshore venue for the kind of casual evening that Manchin considers vital to politics.
On this occasion, Manchin and his wife, Gayle, were joined by Senators Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine—who, along with Manchin, occupy a small island of centrists in a fiercely divided Congress. Collins told me recently, “It’s increasingly a lonely place to be.” Hours earlier, in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, Collins had been one of seven Republicans who joined Democrats in pronouncing him guilty. But the final tally was 57-43, ten votes short of conviction. To those who had hoped that the defiling of the Capitol and the assault on police would at last break Trump’s grip on his party, the result was dismal.
On board, Manchin’s guests ate Gayle’s spaghetti and meatballs, while he fixed the drinks. After a few hours, Tester started making his way home to his apartment across town, but as he went down the gangplank he found that it had become coated with ice. “My feet go to the ceiling,” he recalled recently. Manchin reached out to grab him, at which point he also fell. Both men started sliding. Tester’s foot hit the water. “I was looking for anything to grab,” he said. “I finally got a piece of metal and stopped. Joe did, too.” Tester was bleeding from his left hand; he asked Manchin if he was all right. “He says, ‘I think I broke my thumb.’ ” (Doctors put Manchin in a brace, but he took it off after a few weeks.)
In another year, the prospect of losing two Democratic senators overboard in an ice storm might be greeted with a certain wry resignation among Washington’s political class. This year, it inspires panic, at least among Democrats: in a 50-50 Senate, the Party’s agenda is only one vote—or one heartbeat—from oblivion. Manchin, in particular, holds extraordinary power. As perhaps the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, he often breaks from the Party, which gives him a de-facto veto over a large swath of the Administration’s agenda. [Continue reading…]