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Manchin registers as an Independent after years of speculation

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a lifelong Democrat whose policy positions have often been a thorn in his party's side, has registered as an independent on Friday, just months before he’s set to end his term in the U.S. Senate.

“Today, our national politics are broken and neither party is willing to compromise to find common ground,” Manchin said in a statement. “To stay true to myself and remain committed to put country before party, I have decided to register as an independent with no party affiliation and continue to fight for America’s sensible majority.”

Manchin’s role within the Democratic party has been the subject of rampant speculation as he has repeatedly dodged questions about how he defines himself politically. He recently squashed rumors that he would launch a third-party 2024 presidential bid but has been vague about his future political ambitions.

Manchin also launched a listening tour where he traveled around the country, and also previously appeared with the group No Labels, which explored a possible third-party ticket but ultimately scrapped efforts.

Manchin, 76, has served in the Senate for nearly 14 years where he developed a reputation as a strong-willed dissenter within the party, often stalling or refusing to support Democratic-backed legislation he disagreed with.

He joins three additional registered Independents in the Senate, who largely vote with Democrats, including Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who left the Democratic Party in December of 2022.

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The Senate now has 49 registered Republicans, 47 Democrats and four Independents.

A long-expected decision

In August of last year, Manchin previewed the change during an interview on Metro News Talkline.

"I've been thinking about that for quite some time," Manchin said, when asked if he would consider becoming an independent. "I want to make sure my voice is truly an independent voice. When I'm speaking, I'm speaking about the good the Republicans do and the good the Democrats continue to do."

He added: "You've heard me say a million times that I'm not a Washington Democrat."

While it’s long been a question if Manchin would switch parties, the drama surrounding his party affiliation escalated after the centrist dropped the bombshell news in December 2021 that he wouldn't support President Biden's roughly $2 trillion social and climate spending legislation known as Build Back Better.

"I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't," Manchin said on Fox News Sunday at the time. "I've tried everything humanly possible. I just can't get there."

Manchin's about-face came after months of negotiations on the spending package, which would provide significant investments in combatting climate change and expanding the social safety net. Many of his Democratic colleagues were outraged.

The Senator ended up working directly with Senate Democrats and the Biden administration to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which featured a portion of the policies Democrats were pushing in the initial Build Back Better legislation.

In October, 2021, Manchin told reporters he offered to change his party affiliation to independent if he was an "embarrassment" to his Democratic colleagues.

"I said, me being a moderate centrist Democrat — if that causes you a problem, let me know and I'd switch to be independent," he said at the time, noting that "no one accepted" his offer.

'We'd love to have him'

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly expressed interest in having Manchin join the GOP. The West Virginian won in a red state that Trump carried by almost 39 points in 2020.

"I've had this conversation off and on with him for a couple of years," McConnell said in 2021 on The Hugh Hewitt Show. "I think Manchin is discovering there just aren't any Democrats left in the Senate that are pro-life and terribly concerned about the deficit and inflation, so he feels like a man alone. If he were to join us, he'd be joining a lot of folks who have similar views on a whole range of issues."

McConnell said the pair had "discussed" whether Manchin would be able to retain the gavel of the energy committee.

The status of Manchin’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat

Most analysts expect Democrats will lose Manchin’s seat this fall in the ruby-red state of West Virginia.

The state's Republican governor Jim Justice won the Republican primary just two weeks ago, defeating Rep. Alex Mooney, R-WV. Justice, who was endorsed by former President Trump, will faceoff against Democrat, Glenn Elliott, the mayor of Wheeling, West Virginia.

Justice is widely expected to win in the general election matchup.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.