Politics

Democrats Have No Idea What to Do About Joe Manchin

The plan to fight for reform crashes into one man’s fantasy of bipartisanship.

Manchin is surrounded by reporters as he walks down a hallway at the Capitol
Sen. Joe Manchin at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Joe Biden last week said that June must be a “month of action” on Capitol Hill to act on voting rights legislation. He deputized Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the charge, an effort for which, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly said, “failure is not an option.” In a letter to colleagues on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined in, describing two voting rights bills that “must become law in order to respect the sanctity of the vote, which is the basis of our democracy,” and saying that they “must be passed now.”

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It’s been an extraordinary level of maintained hype for pieces of legislation that have no apparent path to becoming law. Both the For the People Act, a broad election and voting rights package, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a restoration of a key tool in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013, are bills that Democrats chose to promote as signature goals of their governing agenda. And they’re stuck.

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West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin didn’t really say much new in the op-ed he published this past weekend that sent Democrats into an absolute tizzy. There was a slight, though meaningful, tightening of his position on the For the People Act: from not supporting it to saying he would vote against it. He also reiterated his position, for the umpteenth time, that he will not vote to weaken or eliminate the Senate filibuster.

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The reason this umpteenth iteration caused such anguish among progressives, activist groups, and Manchin’s own Senate Democratic colleagues is that they’re now on a timeline. Schumer had organized the June work period as an opportunity to show moderates in his caucus, after a relatively productive bipartisan spring, the limits of bipartisanship. He readied votes on the Paycheck Fairness Act, LGBT equality legislation, gun safety, and the most difficult priority of all—the For the People Act—to establish a record of Republican filibustering and force the question within his caucus about the need to eliminate or reform the filibuster. Manchin saw this coming, though, and preempted the festivities by refusing to cooperate with his own party and give Republicans something to obstruct. Democrats laid down the track, but Manchin skipped the train.

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Democrats are beginning to acknowledge that if S. 1 has any chance of getting 50 votes—which still wouldn’t solve their filibuster problem, but one thing at a time—it may need to be narrowed or broken up. Key to that, though, will be getting Manchin to identify what provisions he would need to see changed, since his main objection to the legislation has been that a major elections overhaul shouldn’t be done on a partisan basis. (Even though that’s what Republican-led states across the country are doing right now.)

“I frankly don’t know, for example, where Joe is in terms of the actual provisions, because if we’re going to get something done, we have to talk about the actual provisions,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono told reporters. “What are the provisions that people have concerns with? I’d like to have those identified if we’re going to start talking about a bill that is not going to have everything in it.”

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The West Virginian’s preferred voting rights path would be to ditch S. 1 altogether and focus instead on forging a bipartisan agreement to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Perhaps if Democrats had a choice to snap their fingers and secure that outcome, they would, as it’s better than their current trajectory of securing nothing. But it’s a fantasy.

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First, as just about every Democrat who isn’t Joe Manchin will say, the two are not interchangeable. S. 1 also addresses corruption, dark money, campaign finance, gerrymandering, and other elements of the electoral system.

“Let’s be really clear, it’s a false choice,” Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock told reporters. “John Lewis was my church member. I was his pastor. I’m glad that we have the John Lewis bill, appropriately named in his honor. But let’s be clear, John Lewis spent his last 10 years fighting for the provisions in the For the People Act.”

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“And so it’s not an either-or proposition,” he added. “We’ve got to pass John Lewis in order to protect voting rights. We’ve got to pass the For the People Act to provide some basic standards for our elections.”

There are also not 10 Republicans out there who would support a VRA restoration. There is one, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and even Murkowski concedes that there might be no way to get more than one. The next usual suspect you’d expect could come around, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, allowed a reporter’s question about whether she could support a VRA restoration to go unanswered Monday as the elevator doors shut on her.

“I haven’t seen 10 Republicans who’ve stepped up and said they’re interested in the Lewis bill. I haven’t seen five Republicans step up,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told reporters. “So I don’t know where those 10 Republicans are magically going to come from.”

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The VRA’s preclearance requirements for states and localities that want to change their voting laws would directly impede the state and local Republican Party effort to restrict their voting laws. It’s just about axiomatic that Republicans would oppose this. So the Republicans are sticking with the plan they’ve followed ever since the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority struck down preclearance: pass discriminatory laws and deny that they’re discriminatory. “There’s no threat to the voting rights law, it’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already, and so I think it’s unnecessary,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

Manchin has said he would provide caucus leaders with a list of provisions in the For the People Act that he has concerns with, and he met with a group of civil rights leaders Tuesday so they could sound each other out. Democrats also, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, had a “frank and candid” discussion of the issue during their caucus lunch on Tuesday. (This is often Senate code for people smashing one another over the head with fine china.)

“People expressed themselves. There’s a lot of strong feelings about that bill,” Durbin said. “Sen. Klobuchar and the Rules Committee put a lot of work into it, and really believe, as most of us do, that it’s necessary and very popular.”

A reporter asked if Manchin addressed the caucus during the lunch.

“He wasn’t there,” Durbin said. “I didn’t see him.”

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