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Joe Manchin Faces Liberal Opposition in Bid to Be Energy Panel’s Top Democrat

Joe Manchin Faces Liberal Opposition in Bid to Be Energy Panel’s Top Democrat

Joe Manchin Faces Liberal Opposition in Bid to Be Energy Panel’s Top Democrat

Joe Manchin Faces Liberal Opposition in Bid to Be Energy Panel’s Top Democrat

Joe Manchin Faces Liberal Opposition in Bid to Be Energy Panel’s Top Democrat

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WASHINGTON — During his first run for the Senate in 2010, Joe Manchin III, the Democrat from West Virginia, took aim — literally — at a climate change bill, shooting a bullet through it in a television ad. Now some Democrats are taking aim at Mr. Manchin, declaring him unfit to be the top Democrat on the committee that handles climate change.

As the Senate undergoes the customary postelection reshuffling of committees, Mr. Manchin, whose state is a major coal producer, has become a leading contender to become the senior Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But his pro-coal views and past campaign contributions from coal companies are causing a stir on his party’s left.

Over the past several days, two potential Democratic White House aspirants — Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and Tom Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist who has made fighting climate change his signature issue — have joined environmental advocates in calling on Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, to keep Mr. Manchin out of the ranking spot.

“He supports Donald Trump’s dirty energy agenda,” Mr. Inslee wrote in an email to supporters. “He simply can’t be trusted to make the bold, progressive decisions we need.”

The push to block Mr. Manchin — which is unlikely to succeed — underscores the deep fissures among Democrats as they head into the 2020 campaign, where they will be balancing a desire to energize the left against appealing to moderates and white working-class voters who voted in 2016 for President Trump.

Mr. Manchin just won a tough re-election bid in a state Mr. Trump won by more than 40 points in 2016. In a party where the left is feeling emboldened, he is a member of a rare and shrinking breed: the centrist Democrat.

“Come in and talk to me, the door’s open,” Mr. Manchin said Thursday, brushing past reporters who sought his response to his critics. If the ranking position, which is awarded on the basis of seniority, is offered to him, he said he would take it. “I want to do whatever I can to help my country and my state,” he said.

The senator has also addressed his critics another way, by reversing himself to vote against Mr. Trump’s nominee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Mr. Manchin was the sole Democrat to vote in favor of the nominee, Bernard McNamee, in committee. But he changed his mind, he said, after seeing video footage of Mr. McNamee denying that climate change is caused by humans.

A statement he issued seemed designed to send a strong message to his detractors.

“Climate change is real, humans have made a significant impact, and we have the responsibility and capability to address it urgently,” it said. Despite his opposition, Mr. McNamee was confirmed on Thursday, 50 to 49.

Mr. Manchin’s ability to win as a Democrat in a deep-red state has helped hold down the Republican majority in the Senate. But he votes with Mr. Trump 60.8 percent of the time, according to the website FiveThirtyEight. Fewer than half of his votes line up with the positions advanced by the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group.

He is also about to lose his two closest ideological compatriots: Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Democrats who lost their re-election bids last month. Both of them voted against the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh; Mr. Manchin, bowing to the will of his constituents, was the lone Democrat to vote in favor.

Mr. Manchin’s campaign contributions from coal and energy companies have also drawn the ire of the progressive left. Of the 20 senators who received the most money from coal mining interests in 2018, he ranks 11th and is the sole Democrat, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand Democrat and incoming House freshman from New York who has been pushing for a so-called Green New Deal, cited those contributions last week when she expressed opposition to Mr. Manchin.

“I have concerns over the senator’s chairmanship just because I do not believe that we should be financed by the industries that we are supposed to be legislating and regulating and touching with our legislation,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez told reporters at a news conference with members of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental advocacy group. Movement members also protested outside Mr. Schumer’s New York office on Monday.

Under the seniority system by which Senate Democrats govern themselves, several of Mr. Manchin’s colleagues are ahead of him in the line for the top spot on the energy panel. But for various reasons — including the tradition that a senator serves as the ranking member of only one committee — they seem likely to turn it down. The maneuvering, which will be sorted out before the next Congress begins, is like a game of political musical chairs.

Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, currently the top Democrat on the energy panel, may move to the Commerce Committee, replacing Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who lost his re-election bid. Next in seniority is Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, but he wants to keep his top spot on the Finance Committee. Then comes Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who has shown no inclination to vacate the top spot on the Agriculture Committee.

That leaves Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and holds the party’s top spot on the Budget Committee; he has not stated his intentions, and waved away questions on Thursday. If Mr. Sanders rejects Energy and Commerce in favor of remaining the ranking member on the budget panel, the job would be Mr. Manchin’s — unless Mr. Schumer intervened, which would be likely to cause an uproar in his caucus.

A spokesman for Mr. Schumer declined to comment.

As the controversy swirled, other Democrats came to Mr. Manchin’s defense on Thursday, arguing that no one senator — not even one in a top spot of a relevant committee — will set policy on climate change. Even so, Mr. Manchin’s future is likely to come up when Democrats organize their committee slates for the coming Congress.

“I’m sure there will be some discussion among members; I think it’s a worthwhile conversation to have,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. But, Mr. Murphy added, “nobody in our caucus has veto power over climate policy, whether they’re the ranking member on a committee or not.”

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