Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has one play. It’s a good play—a play that has worked again and again, burnishing his reputation as a brilliant, nearly unbeatable Senate tactician and foe of the progressive policy agenda. But it’s still a fairly simple maneuver: Unify your side against the other side no matter what. Then rely on your side’s procedural advantages—the Senate filibuster, partisan gerrymandering, Congress’ rural and small-state bias—to do the rest. That’s it.
It’s not that complicated, even if it has been amazingly successful. But it’s also something that hasn’t really been tested, and that is the part that could be about to change. On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) announced that he could be convinced to vote on Congressional Democrats’ top priorities on voting rights, something he’s previously resisted, and he even offered a list of specific elements he wants to see as part of a compromise on the sprawling “For the People Act,” or S1. The Intercept further reported that Manchin told billionaire donors that he’s more open to modifying the filibuster than he’s indicated before, particularly if Republicans continue their unified front against all compromises and GOP state legislatures continue to pass bills that massively suppress the vote.
Manchin’s comments are meant to tempt Republicans into compromising with him, which means this could be the first time they have a chance to break the McConnell firewall. And McConnell does not seem happy about it—on Thursday, McConnell seemed to realize the nature of this threat, to which he and Republican Senate leadership responded with apparent fury. They made every effort not to say it outright, but the target of their rage was Manchin himself.
First, McConnell released a statement with a header using air quotes to sneer at Manchin’s “compromise” proposal and saying it had the “same rotten core” as the original bill. He then pointedly noted that Manchin’s proposals were endorsed by Democratic voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams—what seemed to be a not-so-subtle racial dog whistle—and said the voting rights package was actually the latest Democratic effort at “cancel culture.”
“Senate Democrats seem to have reached a so-called ‘compromise’ election takeover among themselves,” McConnell’s statement read. “In reality, the plan endorsed by Stacey Abrams is no compromise. It still subverts the First Amendment to supercharge cancel culture and the left’s name-and-shame campaign model.”
Manchin’s version of S1 limits partisan gerrymandering, expands early voting, creates automatic voter registration, and includes nationwide voter ID in a sop to Republicans. In other words, this has nothing to do with cancel culture, the right’s latest hobbyhorse.
In a subsequent press conference given by nearly a dozen Republican Senators, including McConnell’s leadership team, they explained the cancel culture aspect of it by saying that opening up voting amounts to Democrats canceling Republicans because doing so could make Democrats a “permanent majority party,” in the words of Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso. In other words, sure, it may be Democrats who have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections while only winning the presidency three times, it may be Republicans that the Senate map is heavily tilted toward, and it may be Republican-controlled state legislatures who have spent the past months passing some of the harshest voter restriction measures in recent history. But in Barrasso’s view—and the view of his Republican colleagues—it’s Manchin and Democrats who are trying “stack the deck” by trying to remove impediments to voting.
At any rate, this Republican “show of force,” as one reporter called it and Sen. Ted Cruz acknowledged it was, is part of McConnell’s attempt to run the same play again—unify his conference against anything Manchin and the Democrats try to do, no matter what it is.
During the press conference, McConnell promised all Republicans would vote against Manchin’s compromise proposal should it come to the floor, and once again noted it was “endorsed by Stacey Abrams.” Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Roy Blount also emphasized Abrams’ support of Manchin’s plan: “I actually think when Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed the Sen. Manchin proposal it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute,” Blount said. Sen. Ted Cruz went even further. “If you want to talk about what is Jim Crow 2.0, it is the corrupt politician’s act,” Cruz said, using his nickname for S1. Never mind that Manchin’s bill excludes some of the very proposals Republican senators have complained about, including S1’s original plan to banishes voter ID and federalize campaign financing.
For his part, Sen. Lindsey Graham was honest, at least, with what he didn’t like about Manchin’s plan: It would eliminate the ability of Republican-controlled legislatures to draw Congressional lines that benefit Republicans in the House even when they get fewer votes. “The best evidence of the political nature of this bill is that they want to take away from red states where people are moving the ability to draw lines,” Graham said. “Under this bill, this independent commission would take away from Florida, Montana, and Texas the ability to draw these lines.”
There’s no evidence yet of Republicans breaking ranks with McConnell’s staunch opposition. The question that matters is: What does that mean for Joe Manchin’s position?
On Thursday, he did not seem to take too kindly to McConnell’s attacks on him and his voting rights proposal. “McConnell has a right to do whatever he thinks he can do. I would hope that there’s enough good Republicans who understand the bedrock of our society is having an accessible, fair open, election,” Manchin said, according to HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic. This is a line of thinking that the West Virginia Democrat has used a lot—the idea that “some Republicans” will find a way to work with him.
We’ll find out how willing they are—Manchin suggested he would vote to advance S1 to debate when it reaches the floor next week, something he hadn’t previously committed to doing. He has also called for a bit of bipartisanship from the Republican side on this issue. “I’m thinking they could reach out and help a little bit,” he said.
Maybe lashing out at Manchin is the best bet McConnell has to unite his conference. And maybe Manchin will continue to abide Senate procedures that allow for McConnell to succeed through maximum obstruction. There’s at least a chance, though, that McConnell may need to try to come up with another play.