White House mum on rumor, ‘loose talk’ about Manchin

Source: Hannah Northey and Dylan Brown, E&E News reporters • Posted: Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The White House isn’t commenting on rumors that West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is a potential pick to lead the Energy Department, but that hasn’t stopped the mill from churning.

The Trump administration last week threw cold water on Bloomberg’s report that Energy Secretary Rick Perry was being considered to lead the Department of Homeland Security (Greenwire, Aug. 2).

And a spokeswoman for the White House today declined to comment on another report from the outlet that some administration officials and Republicans are eyeing Manchin to replace Perry.

Yet sources with ties to the Trump administration said the issue is indeed being mulled over at some level at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., including ways of possibly enticing the senator to join the administration by using coal as a central focus.

“There’s been some loose talk,” said one former DOE transition official.

According to Bloomberg, President Trump is considering tapping Manchin to score points on repealing Obamacare. The senator’s absence on the Hill would allow West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who recently switched to the Republican Party at a rally with Trump, to appoint a GOP successor — and bring the party closer to repealing Obamacare.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), declined to comment on the rumor.

But Frank Maisano, an energy industry advocate with Bracewell LLP who said he’s known Manchin for years, said the senator would likely be reluctant to leave his position as a key power broker in the Senate on everything from the energy bill to tax policy and appropriations.

Maisano said Justice’s decision to change parties would actually hinder Manchin’s desire to leave Capitol Hill as he’d both give Republicans the seat and give up a considerable amount of strength in the caucus. Manchin, he noted, is someone both Republicans and Democrats look to as a key vote with major influence, a position the senator enjoys.

Maisano also pointed to Manchin’s past statements about why he didn’t jump for the DOE post after Trump won the election in November. Manchin told one CNN reporter earlier this year that he and Trump “thought that my best place would be probably here” in the Senate.

“They tried this before, a long and storied discussion including trips up to New York. I think it’s probably something that’s in somebody’s mind a good idea, but I lean back to what Manchin said when he rejected the idea previously, and I’m not sure the governor of the state switching parties would change his mind,” Maisano added.

Whether a focus on the National Energy Technology Laboratory — a major local employer with 611 workers — could sway the senator is unknown.

One source said discussions on luring Manchin have touched on moving elements of the national labs into the NETL, which falls under the agency’s Office of Fossil Energy.

The Trump budget blueprint would completely eliminate NETL coal research funding — $52.9 million. Perry toured the Morgantown NETL facility last month after meeting with Manchin at a West Virginia power plant.

Manchin’s top two Republican challengers in the 2018 Senate race — Rep. Evan Jenkins and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — have already sparred over who is the biggest supporter of the laboratory in their already contentious primary (E&E Daily, July 18).

The Jenkins campaign declined to comment on his rival potentially being considered for DOE, while Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said the attorney general “is committed to running for the U.S. Senate no matter what happens.”

West Virginia GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said rumors about Manchin joining the Trump Cabinet, which have swirled since the election, have picked up since Justice switched parties this month.

“It’s clear that Manchin is looking for a way out. And he wants to avoid what would be a likely loss in 2018,” he said. “If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, regardless … I’m confident Manchin won’t be a U.S. senator past next November.”

Perry, for his part, has shown no indication of leaving his current post, instead calling it the “coolest” job he’s had as he continues to tour facilities, tweet pics and await confirmation of his staff.

And yet one former DOE official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said there appears to be discontent with Perry despite the ongoing talk of “energy dominance” and a belief Manchin’s interest in coal could draw him to the agency.