The answer is becoming increasingly clear. The conservative Democrat from West Virginia wants to demolish President Joe Biden’s climate change strategies and social service expansion plans in ways that are simply not acceptable for his party.
The question is less about Manchin's desires and more about Biden's ability to bring him, his other centrist senators, and its progressives together and save his once-sweeping $3.5 billion proposal from collapse.
The White House is pushing its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill for a close to the end of the grueling negotiations before the end-of-the month deadlines. Pressure is building on the party to keep its small majority in Congress together and deliver on Biden’s priorities. Tuesday will see the president meet again with representatives from both House groups. Biden spoke to Manchin by telephone Monday. Manchin also met with two other progressive leaders, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Washington).
Jen Psaki, Biden's press secretary, acknowledged Monday that "We are at an urgent point where we feel a need to move things forward."
Manchin has repeatedly and publicly rebuffed Biden's plans to increase the social safety net, combat climate change, and address income inequality for months.
He and other centrists, including Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, have already forced Biden into admitting that the final price tag would likely be lower, likely around $2 trillion. This was largely due to higher taxes on corporations, the wealthy and those who earn more than $400,000 per annum.
As negotiators sort through the details of the proposal's contents, Manchin's priorities drive much of the discussion, frustrating colleagues and making it difficult to reach a deal.
Manchin supports raising the corporate tax rate from 26.5% to 25%. This is to finance Biden’s ambitious vision. He agrees that corporations should pay their fair share at a time in which many have reported having paid zero taxes.
After that, the senator from the coal-state parted ways with progressives as well as most of his party members.
He insists on a "fuel neutral approach to energy policies" and threatens to destroy a cornerstone in the climate change plan, The Clean Energy Payment Program. This program would provide grants to power companies that have increased clean energy production by 4% per year, and penalize those who don't.
Another major issue is that he proposes to impose work requirements on recipients of government aid to limit the availability of child care and other health care programs for the most vulnerable Americans by imposing income thresholds or work requirements.
Manchin has a remarkable ability to walk into the spotlight and make wide-ranging demands. He is trying to test the patience of his fellow colleagues, who see a unique opportunity to reform government programs that are being reshaped to suit his personal tastes. Biden's plans are resisted by the Republicans, so the president needs the support of all Democrats in the 50-50 divided Senate to pass his plan.
After meeting privately with Manchin, Sanders, the Vermont Independent, said, "I would hope we're going to seeing some real action within the coming week or so."
Sanders stated, "We discussed how to move forward."
Manchin, who is the chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee says that he has been open and honest about his concerns that certain Democratic proposals could be harmful to his state's coal- and gas-producing states.
Biden's proposed bill would allow the U.S. to reward electric utilities that meet clean energy benchmarks, and penalize those that don't. This is in keeping with President Obama's goal to achieve 80% "clean electricity" in 2030.
The Democratic plan is focused on renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. However, Manchin insists that tax breaks for fossil fuels and wind and solar should be maintained. He also stated that natural gas should be included in the mix.
Natural gas emits less carbon than oil or coal, but it has taken over coal as the biggest source of carbon pollution within the U.S. power sector. This is partly due to the U.S. Fracking boom.
Manchin stated, "I support clean energy but I also believe in producing enough energy to ensure reliability."
Progressives are fighting back.
"No climate, no deal," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., at a recent Capitol news conference.
He said, "And let's be clear: natural gas does not provide clean energy or climate action."
Legislators are currently considering other options for reducing emissions to replace Biden’s clean energy plan. Manchin has advocated for carbon capture technology, which would allow natural gas and coal to be burned while trapping harmful omissions. However, he says it's too expensive to make it feasible.
The proposal of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of Finance Committee, could offer a middle ground. He has stated that the majority of greenhouse gas emission reductions would be achieved through an energy tax overhaul, which he is leading.
His committee is looking at tax changes such as tax credits for energy producers to reduce their emissions and pollution fees for industries to pay for each ton of planet warming carbon dioxide they emit.
Economists consider a carbon tax the best way to reduce fossil fuel emissions. The American Petroleum Institute is the main lobbying arm for the oil and gas industry and has supported the idea of a carbon price.
Although Manchin's climate-related objections remain central to the debate, he also pushes Democrats in other ways. He limits the expansion of social services to people with modest or lower incomes.
Biden already has some proposals, including a child credit for tax, that have income thresholds. This is in line with his interest in helping middle-class Americans. All seniors would be eligible for assistance, regardless of their income, with the proposed expansion to Medicare to include hearing, vision, and dental benefits.
The White House admits that income limits could be imposed.
Psaki stated that "We're discussing targeting and focusing President's proposals on areas where people need help the most."