Manchin threatened to break with Biden before senior Democrats intervened

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As panic and confusion over President Biden’s faltering debate performance swept the ranks of Democratic lawmakers late last week, Sen. Joe Manchin III informed a few key allies that he would soon break with Biden in an interview on a Sunday news show, a high-profile defection that would underscore the president’s weakness.

Democrats feared Manchin — a moderate West Virginia senator who recently registered as an independent but caucuses with Democrats — would call for Biden to step aside. If he did, the senator would then become the first prominent elected official allied with the party to call for Biden to exit the presidential race.

But he didn’t. Senior Democrats heard of Manchin’s plans and started making calls to the independent-minded senator, who once used a Sunday show appearance to announce his opposition to Biden’s top agenda item and effectively kill it. The “full-court press” was quickly assembled to help dissuade Manchin from appearing on the show, according to two people familiar with the response who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The effort included a weekend phone call with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who discussed the matter with Manchin, according to those people. Schumer talked with Manchin after the senator had already decided not to go on a Sunday show, one person said. The shows typically serve as a vehicle for prominent elected officials to discuss the news of the day and make their views known, both to the public and others in politics.

“Joe Manchin talks to lots of people because he wants to get different views and political perspectives,” Manchin senior political adviser Jonathan Kott said in a statement. “When he has something to say, you’ll hear it directly from him, and trust me, there’s nobody that can talk him out of speaking his mind.”

At one point, Manchin reached out to former president Bill Clinton to talk, but those two never connected, according to a source familiar with the effort. Clinton posted a message of support for Biden on social media after the debate.

Manchin’s reversal illustrates Democrats’ rapid tamping down of internal dissent over the 81-year-old Biden remaining their presumptive nominee as the campaign and party leaders argue that only the president and his family can decide his political future. Urging drastic action before examining post-debate polling is unwise, party leaders have argued, and Democrats are aware that being the first prominent Democratic official to do so could come with a political cost.

“Nobody wants to be the first one to knife Julius Caesar,” one Democratic Party official said.

On Tuesday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (Tex.), went public and became the first sitting Democratic House member to call for Biden’s exit from the race.

In a statement, Doggett praised Biden for his years of public service, saying he has “achieved much for our country at home and abroad.” But, he said, the time has come for Biden to step away from the ticket because “too much is at stake to risk a Trump victory — too great a risk to assume that what could not be turned around in a year, what was not turned around in the debate, can be turned around now.”

“President Biden saved our democracy by delivering us from Trump in 2020,” Doggett said. “He must not deliver us to Trump in 2024.”

Privately, many Democratic lawmakers have raised questions about Biden’s viability as a candidate, and have expressed anger at Biden’s campaign. These Democratic lawmakers and donors say that campaign aides are dismissing legitimate concerns about Biden’s fitness and are furious that the campaign is trying to spin the debate as an unfortunate one-off, multiple members and aides said. The lawmakers worry about Democrats’ ability to retain control of the Senate and potentially capture the House in an election with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ballot and pre-debate polling showing a tight race.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has asked candidates in close races to see how the next several days play out before speaking their minds. His message to donors, according to four people familiar with his comments, is that they should invest in the House. House Democrats have the best shot to win in November and will serve as a check on Trump, Jeffries has said.

In the debate’s wake, some editorial boards, Democratic strategists and donors have agitated for Biden to step aside and be replaced at the Democratic National Convention in August. But Biden’s allies have dismissively pointed out that no one inside the Capitol has joined those calls — providing a bubble of political protection that Manchin’s potential break would have pierced.

“I’m not doing it and I don’t know anybody who’s doing it,” former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters when asked Friday what she thought about those who are calling for Biden to step aside. “I mean, maybe some people outside.”

Those concerned about Biden’s ability to beat Trump have argued that it would take party elders like Schumer, Jeffries or Pelosi to go to Biden and express their concern for any possible change in stance to be contemplated by the president’s team.

But all have publicly stood by him, with Jeffries and Pelosi defending him in a flurry of media appearances. “I’m with Joe Biden,” Schumer said Tuesday at an event in Syracuse, according to NBC News. “We’ve worked hard together for four years and delivered a lot for America and central New York.” Schumer is facing less internal dissent than Jeffries, given that the 81-year-old president served for decades in the Senate and has maintained individual relationships with some senators.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ran against Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020, released a joint op-ed with the president outlining their efforts to reduce prescription drug prices.

That even Manchin — a perpetual thorn in Democrats’ side who spent months flirting with an independent presidential run that Democrats feared could boost Trump — has not broken with the president speaks to the tight lid that’s been kept on calls to oust Biden. Unlike his Democratic colleagues, Manchin has not endorsed Biden.

That dam may soon break, however, if polls show a steep decline in Biden’s standing or he does not ramp up his public appearances to show that he can do the job. Democrats in the House, which Republican control, now consider their chances of regaining the majority in November as the only firewall to a possible Trump administration, but also worry that Biden will drag down their chances to flip the chamber if he remains atop the ticket. And Democratic senators running in a gantlet of red and purple states must all hold onto their seats to keep that chamber in Democratic hands.

On Tuesday, former House member Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who ran for president in 2020, called for Vice President Harris to replace Biden on the ticket in Newsweek.

“Kamala was the highlight of a historically dreadful night,” Ryan said of debate night. “Those who questioned her chops over the past several years were rebuked by a polished, confident leader communicating clearly in the throes of a political meltdown of epic proportions. I loved watching it.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) expressed concern Tuesday morning about the impact of Biden’s candidacy down-ballot.

“I think he has to be honest with himself. This is a decision he’s going to have to make,” Quigley told CNN’s Kasie Hunt. “His decision not only impacts who’s going to serve in the White House the next four years, but who’s going to serve in the Senate, who’s going to serve in the House, and it will have implications for decades to come.”

The Biden campaign has sought to tamp down Democratic defections, putting out a flurry of polling and fundraising data to calm skittish donors and lawmakers. White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and Steve Ricchetti, another top White House aide, have spoken with Schumer and Jeffries as part of their efforts to calm the waters, according to people familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private discussions.

Jeffries has not yet spoken to the president, according to one person familiar with their relationship.

Lawmakers are not in Washington this week, which means many have been able to escape reporters’ questions. But they’ll face constituent concerns, especially during the July 4 holiday, where patriotic parades are popular stomping grounds.

While Jeffries has publicly stood by the president, he is hearing out frustrated Democratic colleagues who believe his stance could change. Jeffries and his leadership team continue to listen to House Democrats whose concerns have not dissipated since Biden’s strong performance at a North Carolina rally Friday. Multiple Democratic lawmakers and aides said they believe that if ensuing polls are dismal, House Democrats will have no choice but to call for Biden to step aside. Congressional leadership, they said, will have to follow.

House Democrats across the ideological spectrum remain furious at the lack of outreach and direction from the Biden campaign about the way to unify as a party. A majority of rank-and-file Democrats have not received any kind of formal communications from the Biden campaign other than the standard talking points and memos sent by the White House and campaign.

“The reassurance strategy, if that’s what you want to call it, is not working, and I think some find it a bit offensive,” one Democratic aide said.

“The President has spoken personally with multiple elected officials on the Hill and across the battlegrounds since the debate,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement.

Democratic chiefs of staff are now getting a daily memo from former White House legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell, who is helping the Biden campaign with talking points as well as polling and arguments to make their case that Biden is still in a position to be the nominee.

Some Democratic senators have been sharply critical of Biden’s debate performance, but none have suggested that he should step aside or is not fit to do the job.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the Biden campaign has to address voters’ legitimate questions about whether Biden is up to the job.

“They have to have a plan that does offer that reassurance to voters who have a fair question: Can this person who we like do this job for another four years?” Welch said.

He also warned that if Biden performs badly, it will be a “fierce undertow” for Democratic Senate candidates, who face many tough races in the fall.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told a local TV reporter he was “pretty horrified” by the debate.

“I think people want to make sure that this is a campaign that is ready to go and win, that the president and his team are being candid with us about his condition, that this was a real anomaly and not just the way he is these days,” he added.

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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