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U.S. Senator Joe Manchin walks through a hallway as reporters ask questions following the Senate Democrats weekly policy lunch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 19, 2021.ELIZABETH FRANTZ/Reuters

By all appearances, there’s a turncoat in the Democrats’ midst – a lawmaker with all the look of a Republican plant.

We’ve all heard of politicians putting personal interests above those of the nation. But there haven’t been many like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Given President Joe Biden’s trenchantly progressive agenda, Senator Bernie Sanders talks of today being “a pivotal moment in American history.” But it won’t be by the time Mr. Manchin gets through with it. Torpedo Joe, as he might as well be called, has been shooting down one big leftist piece of legislation after another.

Without his support, the Democrats do not have a working majority in the Senate. The conservatively inclined Mr. Manchin knows it, and loves it – and is certainly taking advantage.

His latest move is blocking the Democrats’ clean electricity legislation, the centrepiece of Mr. Biden’s climate program and critical for the administration in reaching its carbon targets.

Being from a coal-dependent state, Mr. Manchin sees his popularity threatened if he supports the measure, even though he isn’t up for re-election until 2024. That’s not all that could be threatened: The 74-year-old former two-term governor of West Virginia is the founder of a private coal brokerage from which he raked in US$500,000 of income in 2020, and fellow Democrats regard him as a tool of the energy lobby.

The timing of his obstructionism could hardly be worse. The United Nations Climate Change Conference begins on Oct. 31 in Glasgow. The United States, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, now risks arriving there as a laggard, given its inability to spearhead global action.

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Canada, of course, will be affected by American failure. Of Mr. Manchin’s position, former Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna said in an e-mail: “How brutal that he is holding a whole agenda hostage while he makes money from his family’s coal interests.”

It’s not just on climate that the West Virginian is a one-man wrecking crew. He opposes the Democrats on an expanded child tax credit, insisting on work requirements. He’s blocked COVID-19 relief payments. He opposes Mr. Biden’s plans to raise the federal minimum wage and to mandate background checks for nearly all gun sales.

He also stands hard against changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, which would allow Democrats to more easily circumvent Republican opposition and pass a voting rights bill, one which would turn back GOP voter suppression measures in a number of states.

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema is the other big holdout for the Democrats, but she is more flexible on climate and other Biden measures.

The President’s multi-trillion social and infrastructure programs represent a major expansion of the welfare state. They risk ballooning the deficit and debt beyond reason. Mr. Manchin is hardly out of line, especially from a conservative perspective, in wanting to rein things in. But Mr. Biden won the election with his big spending plans, and opinion polls are currently showing broad support for them.

His big electricity measure would pay utilities to clean up their act and fine them if they don’t. Mr. Manchin complains that the program uses taxpayer dollars to pay private companies to do things they’re already doing anyway.

The personable lawmaker and former college quarterback has, remarkably, been able to win as a Democrat in a state that has, since 2000, consistently voted Republican in presidential elections, and that Donald Trump won by 38.9 points in the last election. As the Democrats have turned further portside, Mr. Manchin has found himself more estranged from his colleagues, but it’s clear he doesn’t care if he alienates them. “What are they going to do,” Mr. Manchin said, “go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

Mr. Sanders went after him last week in a West Virginia newspaper column. But Mr. Manchin came back hard: “I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs. No op-ed from a self-declared independent socialist is going to change that.”

On climate legislation, the White House has all but lost hope it can change Mr. Manchin’s mind. It is now looking at alternative ways to reduce carbon output such as executive actions and other legislative initiatives, one possibly being a carbon tax. The latter would be going the Canadian route, and it would be “way more helpful,” Ms. McKenna said. “I spoke with many Republicans who support it.”

If Republicans get on board, perhaps Torpedo Joe might as well. But on a raft of liberal measures, he is holding sway and will likely get his way, changing Mr. Biden’s big left transformation into a more modest turn.

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