12/06/2018 17:59 EST | Updated 12/06/2018 18:07 EST

Joe Manchin Faces Opposition From Left Over Top Senate Committee Post

But other Democrats sound comfortable with the West Virginia senator serving as ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Patrick Smith via Getty Images
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a supporter of the coal industry, appears set to move into a top position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and some progressives are not pleased.

WASHINGTON ― High profile progressives and climate advocates are urging Senate Democrats not to give coal-friendly Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) a top post on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which deals with much of the nation’s energy policy and use of federal lands. 

But the prospect of Manchin, who famously used a rifle to shoot a greenhouse gas emission cap-and-trade bill in a 2010 campaign ad, as the committee’s senior Democrat next year did not appear to alarm some of the party’s most influential voices in the Senate on climate change.

“I think he’ll find a way to work through that,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Thursday when asked about opposition to Manchin serving as the panel’s ranking member. While Whitehouse did not express an opinion on Manchin’s elevation on the committee, Whitehouse said he would “do what I can to make him effective at improving our environment in that realm.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), meanwhile, said he had confidence in Democrats’ ability as a whole to fight for progressive climate policies.  

“I don’t have concerns about it [because] it’s all in the end about the caucus. It’s not necessarily about who’s chairman and who’s ranking [member],” Brown said. 

As it stands, Manchin could become the senior Democrat on the committee because of his seniority if current ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) moves to the Senate Commerce Committee, as expected. While Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) outranks Manchin on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Vermont senator suggested to Politico last month that he would prefer to remain the senior minority member on the Senate Budget Committee. (He caucuses with the Democrats.) He declined to answer a question about committee machinations on Thursday.

Despite Manchin’s votes opposing the repeal of Obamacare and the Republican tax cut bill, progressives remain frustrated with his spotty record on the environment.

That Manchin could be given the top spot on the energy committee drew alarm from two Western Democrats who have been talked about as likely 2020 presidential contenders this week: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer.

“It’s time for progressives to band together and take a real, meaningful stand for combating climate change. Appointing Senator Joe Manchin to lead Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would be the opposite of that,” Inslee wrote in an email to supporters on Tuesday. “Here are the facts: Joe Manchin literally shot climate legislation in one of his campaign ads. He supports Donald Trump’s dirty energy agenda. And he simply can’t be trusted to make the bold, progressive decisions we need.”

Similarly, Steyer told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Senate Democrats need to offer a “bold, positive path forward” on combating climate change and that Manchin “does not offer that vision and should not” get the energy committee post.

Amid the outcry, Manchin this week reversed course and voted against Bernard McNamee, a fossil fuel lawyer nominated by Trump to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The senator said he changed his mind after viewing footage in which McNamee denied the impact that humans are having on the planet’s climate.

Manchin’s centrism in the Senate and support for the coal industry, a major sector in his state, probably helped him win re-election to a second term this year in a state where President Donald Trump is overwhelmingly popular. Despite Manchin’s votes opposing the repeal of Obamacare and the Republican tax cut bill, progressives remain frustrated with his spotty record on the environment. The League of Conservation Voters, a top climate advocacy group, gives him only a 45 percent on its policy scorecard, for example.

Asked about the opposition to his elevation Thursday on Capitol Hill, Manchin invited his critics to his office to discuss his views on the matter. 

“Come in and talk to me. Door’s open,” he told reporters.

While he did not explicitly state he was seeking the position, Manchin suggested that he would accept it if no other members who outrank him want it. 

“I want to do whatever I can to help my country and my state. The rules are the rules. Sure, I’ll do whatever I can,” he said.

Because Republicans gained seats in the November midterms, the size and ratios of Senate committees could change substantially next year. Manchin’s status, as well as that of other members like Judiciary Committee member Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is in danger of losing the high-profile slot, will likely be negotiated by Senate leaders by the end of the year. The office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) office declined to comment for this story.

Some climate advocates said Manchin’s ascent on the committee posed little risk of upending efforts to pass legislation on climate change or renewable energy while Democrats remain in the minority.

“It would be problematic for Manchin to be the chair in 2020,” said Brad Johnson, a co-founder of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote. “But even if he becomes ranking member now, that doesn’t mean that the Democrats take the Senate or that he becomes chair.”

Under Schumer’s leadership, “Democrats haven’t been putting up significant roadblocks against Trump nominees,” Johnson said, and pointed to the fact that just two Democrats so far ― Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) ― support the burgeoning effort in the House for a so-called Green New Deal to address climate change and income inequality.

“The real problem right now is Schumer and the caucus in general,” Johnson said. “It’s unreasonable to be wasting our mental energy right now on this question when there are actual real consequential things that people deserve to be thinking about right now.”