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How W.Va. politics affect Sen. Manchin's opposition to Biden's key policy proposal


Why did Democratic Senator Joe Manchin essentially sink a key pillar of the president's agenda? And why did he do it so definitively? The Build Back Better Act is a sweeping social spending and climate package. But every Republican is opposed to it, which means President Biden needed every single Senate Democrat to say, yes. Manchin's no means the bill is dead for now. For more context on Manchin's thinking, we've got Ken Ward Jr. on the line. Ken is a reporter for ProPublica and the founder of the Mountain State Spotlight newsroom in Charleston, W.Va. Good morning, Ken.

KEN WARD JR: Good morning.

DETROW: So Manchin has been making it clear for months that he had a lot of problems, a lot of concerns with this proposal. But he never gave that hard, final answer. Were you surprised by that no over the weekend?

WARD: No, not really. I don't think a lot of people who've really followed Senator Manchin closely were. And the politics here, really, aren't that complicated for him. West Virginia is a deep red state, a Republican machine that's turned a reliably Democratic state into a GOP column. It's kind of lying in wait for Senator Manchin. And they're looking for anything. They're on the alert for anything that they can point to to frame him as being in league with the Democrats, you know? They call this a socialist spending spree and reckless. So it's really not that surprising that Senator Manchin made this decision.

DETROW: And on top of that, this was a proposal that would have spent more money on climate change efforts than any previous legislation. Obviously, the the legacy of coal in West Virginia goes deep. And it's something that Joe Manchin has tapped into.

WARD: Well, certainly, Senator Manchin's family has close ties with the coal industry today. His family knows the negative side of the coal industry. His uncle died in a mine disaster in 1968. But really, this - you know, one of the things that's kind of maddening is that the kind of investments that this would make in the clean energy transition are things that West Virginia desperately needs right now as the coal industry continues a, really, cyclical decline in our state.

DETROW: Yeah. Let's talk about that. You do have a new story out today looking at just how much something like a lot of the programs in this bill are needed, in a way, in West Virginia.

WARD: Right. And one of the things that was really striking in Senator Manchin's statement was being critical of his fellow Democrats that they're determined to dramatically reshape our society. And some of the big investments in this bill would go toward environmental justice. And we have a story out for Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica that looks at the community of Institute, W. Va., a historically Black community that's - where one of the more dangerous chemical plants in the country is located. And this is part of a project that we've done at ProPublica about toxic air pollution and the cancer risk it creates. And this community of Institute has struggled for 40 years with this particular chemical plant. And the Build Back Better legislation would provide a lot of money for cleaning up legacy pollution, for better environmental monitoring, for jobs programs, affordable housing for historically Black communities around the country that are in desperate need of these programs.

DETROW: Did you have a chance to talk to the people who would be directly affected by this about what they made of the way that Manchin has approached this bill?

WARD: Some of the folks in Institute and in that area that are involved in fighting this chemical plant had been lobbying Senator Manchin and were very disappointed that he made this decision.

DETROW: That's ProPublica reporter Ken Ward Jr. His new piece out today looks at the environmental inequities in West Virginia and the impact that the Build Back Better legislation could have had, would have had, on addressing that. Ken, thank you so much.

WARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.