Some White House and Republican officials are exploring the idea of putting West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in charge of the Energy Department, according to four people familiar with the discussions, a move that could boost President Donald Trump’s stalled legislative agenda.
If Manchin were offered and accepted the position, that would allow West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice -- a newly minted Republican -- to appoint a GOP successor and bring the party a vote closer in the Senate to being able to repeal Obamacare. The idea is in the early stages of consideration, and it’s unclear whether it has support within the administration, according to the people, who described the conversations under condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for Manchin declined to say whether the senator would take the Energy secretary job -- currently held by former Texas Governor Rick Perry -- if offered.
“Senator Manchin has not had any recent conversations with the Administration about the Secretary of Energy position. He remains committed to serving the people of West Virginia,” said Jonathan Kott.
Manchin, who faces a tough re-election battle in 2018, was considered for the post after Trump won election in November. His nomination fell through in part because Trump wouldn’t assure him he could pick his own staff, according to two people familiar with the staff selections, who described them on condition of anonymity.
Perry was named Energy Secretary instead, and it’s unclear whether he would be open to taking another position in the administration. He has been among the candidates considered to replace John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security, according to three people familiar with the deliberations. Kelly, who became White House chief of staff last week, and Trump haven’t yet decided who should succeed him as Homeland Security secretary.
Perry has not been a seamless fit with the Energy Department, where the two most recent secretaries had Ph.D.s in physics. Perry was an animal science major at Texas A&M, and he advocated abolishing the department during his own presidential bid. The Air Force veteran was initially under consideration to lead the Pentagon under Trump.
With an annual budget of about $30 billion, the Energy Department’s work ranges from safeguarding nuclear weapons to the research into carbon-capture technology and maintaining the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Perry has expressed a deep interest in the nuclear security and intelligence aspects of the post, and has become a vocal advocate for the national laboratories and for U.S. energy exports.
The ultimate goal of such a Cabinet shift would be to jump-start Trump’s agenda in Congress, particularly repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Yet to execute the idea and pass an Obamacare repeal, Republicans and the administration would have to pull off a highly choreographed series of events. Perry would have to agree to take another job, the Senate would have to confirm Manchin as Energy Secretary, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would then have to bring a repeal bill back up without losing any of the 49 Republican senators who voted for the so-called skinny repeal.
Some of those senators, however, like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said they were only voting for the bill to bring it to negotiations with the House. Other Republicans, like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, are working on a bipartisan fix.
Moreover, Manchin would face intense pressure from fellow Democrats not to leave the Senate and bear some personal responsibility for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Manchin has said in interviews that he warned Trump personally that people in his state who gained insurance under the law don’t know who gave it to them, but would surely know who took it away.
Earlier this month, Trump appeared at a political rally in Huntington, West Virginia, where Justice announced that he was changing parties from Democrat to Republican.
Manchin has sought to position himself as a political independent. In a recent interview with the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he won’t commit to Democratic policy positions just to win re-election.
“The bottom line is, if it doesn’t help West Virginia, it doesn’t make sense to me,” Manchin told the newspaper. “Just because there’s an election doesn’t mean I sign on or don’t sign on,”