You don’t keep getting elected as a Democrat in West Virginia — a state Donald Trump won by a 39-point margin in 2020 — unless you’re a pretty shrewd politician. So while liberals are mad at Sen. Joe Manchin III for what he did to limit the covid-19 relief bill that passed the Senate over the weekend, Manchin is playing a long game.

It’s one that’s very good for him, and might also be good for President Biden and the Democratic agenda. Even liberals might one day find themselves giving thanks for Manchin.

The strategy Manchin seems to be executing will certainly restrain liberal ambitions in ways that are good for him but not so good for the country. But it may also make the realization of much of the Democratic agenda possible, through the long-overdue reform of the filibuster.

Manchin, who is now by some measures the second-most-powerful person in Washington, became the key player in the brief drama around passage of the hugely popular relief bill. Showing his constituents that he is both conservative and effective, he engineered modifications to make both its stimulus checks and its extension of unemployment benefits less generous. His importance was so universally acknowledged that over the weekend he appeared on four Sunday shows.

And while he has angrily insisted for months that he will never agree to do away with the filibuster (“What don’t you understand about ‘never’?” he recently shouted at reporters), he is now dropping hints that he is open to filibuster reform — which is necessary for almost any legislation at all to pass the Senate.

Here’s what he said on Meet the Press:

And now if you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can. But I’m not willing to take away the involvement of the minority.

The reference is to the fact that filibustering a bill doesn’t actually require the minority to do anything, apart from sending an email announcing their intention to filibuster. One proposal for reform is to bring back the requirement that to filibuster the minority would have to keep talking uninterrupted; eventually they might tire themselves out and the bill in question could receive a vote.

So Manchin opened the door to reform. He still says he won’t eliminate the filibuster, but changing it is now a possibility. If you can do so in a way that gives the minority a chance to extend debate but ultimately allows the majority to prevail (there are a number of ways to do that) it would mean something like majority rule could come to this most undemocratic institution.

And if you assume that Manchin is executing a multistage strategy to give himself the space to support reform, then the preposterous things he says about the filibuster are a tiny bit less infuriating.

But they still drive liberals and reformers crazy, as well they should. “I worked with my colleagues and my friends on the Republican side for the last month all the way through,” he said on Fox News Sunday about the covid relief bill, claiming that the things he got into the bill came in part because of those talks.

But that kind of bipartisan negotiation was possible only because this bill was not subject to a filibuster. If it had needed 60 votes to pass, it would have just been dead — no negotiations, no modifications, nothing. In a Senate where 60 votes are needed to pass any bill, Manchin is irrelevant.

But politically, he feels he has to keep proclaiming his commitment to keeping Republicans involved. He told Axios that he won’t allow a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill to go through reconciliation, because he doesn’t want to cut out Republicans “completely before we start trying.”

But he also said he wants the cost of such a bill to be partially offset by repealing some of the 2017 Republican tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. When asked whether he thinks there would be 10 Republican votes for such a bill, he said, “I sure do.”

The idea that 10 Republicans will vote for a bill that not only gives a victory to Biden but does it while undermining their single most important policy goal (low taxes) is, of course, ridiculous. It’s like saying you might get Democrats to support a bill to outlaw abortion if you also threw privatization of Medicare in to boot. Manchin knows that perfectly well.

But the more he gives Republicans the undeserved assumption that they’re operating in good faith, and the more he uses the power he has to make bills like covid relief more conservative, the more authority he has to ultimately sign on to filibuster reform.

When the time comes to change the filibuster — perhaps on infrastructure, perhaps on electoral reform — he will have established his commitment to bipartisanship beyond any doubt. He can then say, “I’ve hammered out a compromise that enables us to modify the filibuster in a way that makes sure the minority’s voice will be heard.”

So far, it all seems to be going according to Manchin’s plan: Everyone knows he’s the guy who restrained liberals on covid relief and is the filibuster’s most prominent defender, and he’s more famous and powerful than ever. Liberals have plenty of reason to be exasperated with him, but if that’s what makes it possible for the Democratic agenda to move through the Senate, it’s worth it.

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