"I told them, 'I understand you're committed to spending $3.5 trillion, but do you have any idea how much revenue you're going to be bringing in?'"
He said they eventually admitted they only expected to receive about $2.2 trillion in revenue during the budget year.
"I said you don't have to be a mathematician to figure that out, people in West Virginia know how to count," Manchin said. "This is insane."
But the anecdote Manchin says is most telling about the severity of the nation's finances came out of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing he observed during his first year in Congress.
The freshman senator asked Adm. Mike Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what Mullen thought was the greatest threat facing the United States.
"I knew about the dangers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Syria and Russia, so I'm really intently listening because, boy, now we're really going to know what the hot spots are," Manchin said.
"But he never hesitated - he said it's the debt of our nation that's the greatest threat to Americans," Manchin said. "He was afraid we were coming apart from within because of the debt we had accumulated."
West Virginia model
West Virginia has faced its own debt crisis before, when long-term liabilities in the 1980s pushed the state to the brink.
Manchin said West Virginia leaders have done a good job over the past few decades to reform finances.
He said that experience could serve as a model for the federal government. While cuts and changes were necessary, he said leaders carved out essential priorities that must continue.
"We took our priorities based on our values - which are our children, their education, and our seniors, making sure that they and our veterans get the care they need," Manchin said. "Those were our basic building blocks."
Manchin said getting the state on the right fiscal track helped insulate it when the economy started to turn in 2007.
The recession in West Virginia was relatively light compared to other parts of the country.
Manchin said the policies he and the Legislature put in place - such as privatizing workers' compensation and cutting long-term liabilities - improved the state's business climate.
"People had confidence to invest and grow the economy," he said. "When you build confidence in public trust, that's a formula for success."
He said 20 Republican and 20 Democrat senators have committed to using the plan as a roadmap for reform.
Manchin said he wished Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would make a strong commitment, if elected, to solve the debt crisis in a bipartisan, Bowles-Simpson-like fashion.
"God, that will be a breath of fresh air, wouldn't it?" he said.
Today's event will be held from 9 a.m. to noon at the Culture Center. Manchin hopes people will come out and listen to the ideas discussed.
"I'm just encouraging everyone that please, if you've ever been concerned and you know that there needs to be a path to fix this, then join us at 9 o'clock in the Culture Center," Manchin said.
"We owe it to them to at least listen and have a chance to understand it."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.h...@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.