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Manchin Endorses Spending Cap, Balanced Budget Amendment

It was pretty clear when elected that Joe Manchin was likely to make Ben Nelson look like Bernie Sanders in some cases. Complicating this further is the fact that he’s up for re-election again in 2012, because the 2010 race was just to finish out the late Robert Byrd’s term. And that’s a Presidential year, in a state where the top of the ticket for Democrats will lose in a landslide. So Manchin thinks he has to lurch even further to the right to keep his job. And so we get this:

Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday announced his support for strict spending caps that put him at odds with his party’s leadership and President Obama.

Manchin told an audience in South Charleston, W.Va., that he would endorse the “CAP Act,” which sets a tighter spending limit than the president’s budget calls for, as well as a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The senator suggested the legislation could help Republicans and Democrats agree to a deal to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

“Today, I will be announcing my support for two proposals that I believe provide a good starting point and framework from which we can move forward,” he said, according to excerpts of his remarks released by his office. “But let me be also clear — one of my top priorities will be to make sure that whatever final debt fix emerges, it will keep our promises to our seniors by protecting Social Security and Medicare. I believe we can do this and cut our debt and deficits over time.”

The CAP Act, also known as McCaskill-Corker, would freeze spending at 20.6% of GDP, well below current limits and without taking into account the aging of the population which will necessarily increase federal spending unless you completely abolish Medicare or Social Security. For context, even the Paul Ryan budget, which does one of those things, spends above that amount. And in the event of a fiscal emergency like a deep recession or depression, the CAP Act and the balanced budget amendment would constrain government from doing precisely what is needed during a time of depressed demand, which is deficit spend. The same with a balanced budget amendment.

In short, these policies would be acts of total lunacy. So naturally, Manchin signed on.

One of the problems, then, with negotiations over something like the debt limit is the presence of Joe Manchin and those like him in the Democratic Party. Republicans can credibly threaten to hold the government hostage, and know that they will have cross-party support from conservatives. Meanwhile their side is completely united. So if you’re unwilling to take a hard line and let Wall Street lobby Republicans into submission on the debt limit, you have to deal with these right-wing elements within the Democratic caucus. And that’s how Joe Manchin, frightened about his own political survival in West Virginia, can help set national policy.

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David Dayen

David Dayen