U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is carving out a niche as an independent-minded moderate who is willing to break with the White House on a wide range of issues.
During a special Senate campaign last year, Manchin was portrayed as a "rubber stamp" for President Barack Obama's policies.
But Manchin, who has been in office for three months, has stood apart from Obama on key elements such as health-care reform and the Environmental Protection Agency's policies, and taken stands on other important issues.
The Democrats have a narrow majority of 53 votes in the Senate, so three or four votes moving in another direction makes a big difference. Manchin joins an increasingly powerful group of moderates who may hold sway of the future of Obama's signature issue. That quartet includes Manchin, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana -- all of whom are up for re-election in 2012 and represent states Obama lost in 2008.
Though Manchin joined a paper-thin Democratic majority in the Senate to prevent the repeal of health care, he supported amendments aimed at a "repair" of the law.
One example is the requirements for small businesses to file 1099 forms with the IRS on payments made for goods and services more than $600.
"I have repeatedly said we need to repair the health-care bill," Manchin said. "We've already taken concrete, bipartisan, common-sense steps to do this by successfully repealing the onerous 1099 provision. But Republicans and Democrats agree that throwing out the good parts of this bill, like helping seniors afford prescription drugs or ending discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions like cancer, does not make good common sense. That's why I am committed to working in a bipartisan fashion to make additional common-sense repairs, beginning with the individual mandate."
But it is not just health care where Manchin is taking a stand opposite of the president. Manchin recently introduced his first piece of legislation that targets EPA's hostility to coal. The EPA Fair Play Act seeks to prevent the agency from changing its rules retroactively after permits have been granted.
Last year, the EPA shut down Arch Coal's Spruce mine in Logan County because it violated a new set of environmental standards, long after permits needed to build the mine were approved. The official veto of the permit took place last month. The new bill would apply retroactively to the beginning of this year, thus blocking the EPA's veto of the permit.
"I believe it is fundamentally wrong for any bureaucratic agency, including the EPA, to regulate what has not been legislated, to have absolute power to change the rules at the end of the game and to revoke a permit, as the EPA did in southern West Virginia's Spruce mine, after it was lawfully granted and employees were hired," Manchin said during his first speech to the Senate. "Giving any agency such absolute power will have a chilling effect on investment and job creation in West Virginia."
And then there is the issue of taxes. In December, Congress wrangled over whether to extend for two years tax breaks enacted under president George W. Bush. The package, brokered by Obama and Republican leaders in the wake of the November elections, angered many Democrats who have long argued that the Bush tax cuts were skewed to benefit the wealthy.
Manchin has consistently favored extending all tax cuts because he has been leery about raising any taxes while the national unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent. Initially, Manchin voted for a bill to extend Bush-era tax cuts -- but not for people making more than $1 million a year.
Republicans blocked a last-minute campaign to scale back the bill's benefits for taxpayers at the highest income levels, so there was gridlock.
"I was open to a common-sense compromise that would extend the cuts to those who make up to $1 million -- or 99.9 percent of West Virginians. Unfortunately, that did not happen," Manchin said in a statement issued after the vote in December.
Manchin said without a bipartisan compromise, taxes would go up for 100 percent of West Virginians and all Americans. He reached across the aisle and voted to extend all Bush-era tax credits, saying it would be irresponsible to do nothing, and erase tax relief for all Americans.
Two other key issues on which Manchin stood apart from Obama were Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) and the DREAM Act. Manchin missed those votes because of family obligations.
Manchin said he entered his thoughts about those issues into the Congressional Record so no one would think "I wasn't going to take a tough vote."
Now law, DADT allows gay people to serve openly in the nation's armed forces. The final Senate vote passed by a vote of 65-31.
Though Manchin said he supports DADT, he didn't want to change the law while soldiers are serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan based on conversations he has had with top Pentagon leaders. Manchin said the law should have been changed on a military, not a legislative, timetable.
"I didn't support it because I felt a legislative timetable would be pressuring front-line troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East," he said during his "Common Sense" tour in January in Fairmont.
Still percolating through Congress, the DREAM Act grants citizenship to immigrants who came to the country as minors, if they are graduates of U.S. high schools, are of good moral character and complete two years in the military or two years in college.
Manchin said the bill should include provisions requiring a person in the military to complete a tour of duty with an honorable discharge, and a person in college should receive some sort of degree.
"I believe everyone in West Virginia would agree that if they made that effort, to get a degree and to serve honorably and do a tour of duty, then they have a right to be a citizen," he said.
No matter what the issue, Manchin advocates a bipartisan approach.
"I truly believe all bills need to be bipartisan," Manchin said last week in an interview with Politico.
A bold optimist, Manchin said recently while in Fairmont, "The job that I am in right now, by getting people in the right direction, you can change the world. You can truly change the world."