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Manchin tells his side of story in Big 12 tiff with Ky. senator

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Sen. Joe Manchin said he holds no ill will toward Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell nearly five months after the two appeared to play a bitter game of political football over their alma maters.

"As they say in the Bible, 'This too shall pass.' As far as I'm concerned, it has," Manchin said in a phone interview Thursday. "I don't look back on it."

On Wednesday, Politico published a story on the "bitterly tense relationship" that now exists between Democrat Manchin, a West Virginia University graduate, and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a former University of Louisville student body president.

The divide, the story said, was cleaved during a fateful week last October when partisan brinkmanship from Washington and the drama of college football conference realignment collided.

That was the week WVU was in, out and finally in the Big 12 Conference.

The New York Times reported that WVU's initial acceptance was blocked after a last-minute lobbying effort by McConnell to get Louisville in the Big 12 instead.

Upon hearing political interference may have usurped WVU's move, Manchin held a press conference saying Congress should hold hearings on whether any ethics rules had been violated.  

But by the end of the week, everything had calmed down. WVU was accepted, Manchin celebrated, and McConnell stayed silent.

Manchin now tells the story of that week from a personal perspective.

"I talked to Jim Clements - Monday night they were in. Tuesday they get a press release to look over and are sent all the details on arrangements for a press conference and a travel schedule," Manchin said. "Then by early afternoon he was told everything was on hold - stop."

But by then the news that WVU was going to the Big 12 had broken and was being reported by news outlets nationwide. Reporters were preparing for a 3 p.m. press conference in Morgantown the next day. It wasn't until late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning that they were told it had been cancelled.

The New York Times reported it was because of McConnell's involvement. That led Manchin to call for a congressional investigation into whether a senator had exerted political influence in getting the Big 12 to put WVU's move on hold.

"The only thing I asked was: Did it stop on its merits or did it stop on the politics?" Manchin said. "And to me it looked like it stopped on the politics.

"If they don't think I'm going to rise up and fight - no matter who it is - I think I have a right and a responsibility to exercise that."

But by the next day the whole drama appeared to have blown over.

"By Thursday night, they (the Big 12) went back and reaffirmed the commitment they made on Monday that we were supposed to be in the conference," Manchin said.

The official announcement came Friday.

Manchin said the delay should not have happened.

'We went through two and a half days of agony," he said. "And just think if it would have gone the other way - it would have been very hurtful, because you know very well it's not just about a football game or football conference. In our state, it's like a rejection."

Manchin defended his and McConnell's right to lobby on behalf of their schools. But as he said in November, he believed it was perfectly clear the Big 12 had made its decision at the beginning of the week.

Had he not felt that way, he said, he would have remained quiet on the issue. He mentioned some of the other lobbying he had done for the state earlier on in the football season.

"I thought we could have been in the SEC," Manchin said. "I talked to my dear friend Nick Saban about that, and, like me, he said, 'I would like West Virginia in the SEC,' and we were working toward that."

That effort proved unsuccessful, though no one talked publicly about it last fall.

"They chose Missouri instead, and then you never heard a thing else about it," Manchin said.

Politico reported that McConnell has remained bitter and even confronted Manchin once at the U.S. Capitol to deny his ethics accusations.

A spokesperson for McConnell's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Manchin said Thursday that it's time to move on.

"I'm sure that they were probably rubbed wrong on this, but this is a personal thing - we've got more important things to work on," he said.

Manchin said to say he and McConnell have spent more or less time around each other is misleading, given the social dynamic of the Senate.

"It's hard to build a relationship when you never see anybody," he said. "The only time we see each other is when you turn on C-SPAN and see us together."

That's because most senators come to Washington on Sunday evening. They're either huddled in their offices or in meetings through Thursday, and then they're on a flight home again on Friday.

Interactions are limited to committee meetings, floor sessions or cable news show debates.

Manchin said he has been among a group of bipartisan lawmakers seeking more social interaction in Congress.

"I've said before that if we stayed here and worked together on weekends, and wives and husbands worked together, and maybe had dinner together and socialized together, I think it'd be a better bond," he said.

McConnell also reportedly played a role in getting Republican John Raese to again challenge Manchin for his U.S. Senate seat.

"If that's what happened, that's fine," Manchin said. "Mitch might think that's his job; I just think it's wrong for me up here to go out openly and campaign against a colleague, whether it's a Democrat or Republican,

He said he has actively cultivated personal relationships with his 99 fellow senators and campaign talk is not conducive to that.

"That's what deteriorates whatever relationships we have up here," he said. "And it's so hard to build a relationship here that I'm not going to do that.

"Now if it's an open seat, I'll be out there fighting for my fellow Democrat," Manchin said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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