Senate Dems Grapple With The Manchin Brick Wall In Front Of Their Voting Rights Push

UNITED STATES - JULY 30: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., is seen in Russell Building on Thursday, July 30, 2020.(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WA) is seen in Russell Building in the Capitol on July 30, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
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June 8, 2021 10:40 a.m.

In the wake of Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) hard line against Democrats’ big democracy overhaul legislation, Senate Dems on Monday were working through the various stages of grief. 

There was denial that the bill, the For the People Act, was truly dead, some plans for continued bargaining to try to win Manchin’s support, and muted anger that Manchin had pinned Democrats’ hope of bulwarking the U.S.’s fragile democratic system to the cooperation of at least 10 Senate Republicans.

What there wasn’t a lot of was public acceptance that Democrats’ strategy for protecting voting rights would need a major rethinking.

“I don’t know,” said Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), when asked what the path forward was on voting rights. “I honestly don’t know.”

From the beginning of Democrats’ tenure controlling Washington, Manchin had made clear that he had no intention of gutting the filibuster so that Senate Dems could circumvent a Republican blockade of the For the People Act, which would create national standards for ballot access while bringing about a whole host of campaign finance and ethics reforms.

There was a belief — perhaps not truly rooted in reality — that the minds of Manchin and other filibuster-allegiant Democrats could be changed if they saw the For the People Act and other agenda items fail because 10 Republican votes were out of reach

But Manchin is not only opposed to nixing the filibuster to pass the voting rights bill; he’s opposed to the bill on the merits, because it doesn’t have Republican support. He’s said he won’t back any elections overhaul that doesn’t have GOP buy-in.

On Monday, after Manchin’s weekend op-ed laying out this position, some Democrats claimed that their voting rights push had not, in fact, run into a brick wall in the form of the West Virginian’s opposition. They suggested that there was still a “process” to work through that could change the bill’s fate.

“We’ll see how that process plays out,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said. When asked by a reporter what the process was, Cardin said he would “rely” on Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to chart the next steps.

In floor remarks Monday afternoon, Schumer reiterated his plans to put the bill — which has been dubbed S.1 in the Senate and H.R.1 in the House, in a marker of how important congressional leaders see it — on the floor later this month.

Though some Democrats acknowledged that they might need to narrow S.1 significantly if they wanted to keep it alive, others insisted that the current broad approach wasn’t dead yet.

“I think we’re all still in the early stages of the debate and the awareness of the people around the country about what’s at risk here,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). “We are just, in Congress, at the beginning of the case for S.1.”

That public case is being coupled with continued private lobbying of Manchin. Leaders of civil rights groups, including the National Urban League and the NAACP, met with Manchin Tuesday to discuss the legislation.

Manchin said, according to the Hill pool, that it was an “informative” and “productive” meeting, but it hadn’t changed his position on S.1.

Some Democrats put the onus on Manchin to show that Republicans would be willing to overcome a filibuster to pass any voting rights bill.

“My view is that anybody who holds the filibuster up as some key element of maintaining democracy has an obligation to be part of the group that produces 10 votes for something meaningful,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told reporters.

Manchin has pointed to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — which would restore the Voting Rights Act requirement that certain states get federal vetting of their voting policies — as a measure that Democrats should focus on getting bipartisan support for instead. Democrats also want to pass that measure, which hasn’t yet been introduced this year. But they note the John Lewis bill’s restoration of the VRA’s federal “preclearance” requirement for certain states’ voting policies wouldn’t undo the restrictive laws that states have already passed, and they remain skeptical of Manchin’s read of the partisan dynamics.

“I haven’t seen 10 Republicans who have stepped up and say they’re interested in the Lewis bill. I haven’t seen five Republicans step up,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said. “So I don’t know where those 10 Republicans are magically going to come from.” 

Indeed, even Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — the one Senate Republican who has co-sponsored recent versions of a VRA fix — said Monday that it would be “challenging” to get 10 Republicans to support such a bill.

Rank-and-file Republicans — including some senators who have been willing to work with Democrats on other big ticket items — said they’d oppose most federal interventions into how states run their elections. They deny that the slew of state voter restrictions passed after President Trump’s voter fraud lies amount to any impediment to the ballot box.

“I don’t think there’s very many states out there that have an interest in actually slowing down the vote,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) said, later adding that he did not “want to see the federal government directly involved in telling states what they have to do” on election policy.

Manchin has cited as potentially gettable votes the seven Republicans who supported Trump’s impeachment for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. One of those Republicans, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), indicated that even that would be an uphill climb.

While some elements of the Voting Rights Act could have bipartisan support, Toomey said, “there’s a fundamental challenge” in that “Republicans don’t think we should federalize election law.”

“I think you have to make the case for why we need preclearance,” Toomey told TPM. “Where is there demonstrated evidence that we need it today, rather than what we needed 60 years ago? Because in six decades America has changed.”

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