Sen. Joe Manchin talks to reporters as he leaves the the Senate Democrats' weekly policy luncheon at the US Capitol on July 20, 2021.
CNN  — 

In their book, “This Will Not Pass,” New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns write of a dinner between Republican Sens. John Thune, Susan Collins and Rob Portman and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in early 2021.

Collins had arranged the dinner following Vice President Kamala Harris’ interview with a local West Virginia TV station in which she said that the country was facing a “crisis of unbelievable proportions” and that politicians needed to “step up and stand for them.”

While she didn’t mention West Virginia’s Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, by name, it was very clear whom Harris was targeting with her words. And Manchin was upset.

Sensing an opportunity, Collins, who had a close relationship with Manchin, invited him to dinner with her, Portman and Thune, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate. Manchin had rejected party-switching appeals in the past, so Thune pitched him on becoming an independent and caucusing with the Republicans, according to reporting from Burns and Martin.

Here’s the key passage from the book:

“Thune suggested Manchin would likely be rewarded for taking such a step: You could write your own ticket, the South Dakotan told him. Chair a committee, we’ll help you raise money for your campaign.

“Manchin heard them out and gave Thune a politically deft response.

“John, he said, if you were the leader I would do it.”

Which, well, interesting, right? Yes! Absolutely!

On Thursday, CNN Capitol Hill producer Morgan Rimmer asked Manchin about the comments.

“Not that I can remem – no, we talk all the time, we have dinners together and all that. No, they’re always kidding back and forth,” Manchin said.

Which isn’t exactly a denial.

Then Manchin added this: “John Thune is the most decent human being, a good friend of mine. But no, they know where I’m at. And Mitch McConnell knows he’s tried everything humanly possible. The bottom line is I am a West Virginia Democrat.”

Which, again, is not a denial that he told Thune that if the South Dakotan was the Republican leader, he would switch parties!

For his part, Thune told reporters Thursday that Manchin’s remark was made in “good humor” and that the West Virginia Democrat has “never given any serious consideration” to switching parties.

Now, there is no way that McConnell is not the Senate Republican leader come 2023. But who’s to say what the future holds? And Thune could be positioned to ascend to the top job whenever the Kentucky Republican steps aside.

If Manchin is still in the Senate at that point, does his party-switching calculus change?

For Democrat activists already leery of Manchin – and for Democratic strategists perennially worried about him leaving the party – his comments are something well short of reassuring that he’s always going to be with them.

This story has been updated with new comments from Thune.