On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee conducted a markup of the For the People Act, the Democrats’ election reform bill, and it produced an extraordinarily revealing moment, one that should be of particular interest to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.). Sometimes even the phoniest of politicians can stumble into a moment of candor, which is what happened.

That politician is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) At one point, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine.) referred to a series of proposed Republican amendments to the bill, and asked Cruz a pointed question: “If this amendment and others that you suggest are accepted, would you vote for the bill?”

“To be candid, it is difficult to imagine a set of amendments being adopted that would cause me to vote for this bill — it would have to be a fundamentally different bill.”
“That being said, each of these amendments is a designed to strike out egregious aspects of this bill, so if some of these amendments were adopted, it might conceivably convince some Republicans to support it, if it ceased being a partisan power grab.”

Forget about Cruz’s suggestion that some unnamed Republican senators would support the bill; the key here is Cruz’s admission that he won’t ever be among them, and that it might get Republican support only “if it ceased being a partisan power grab.”

As far as Republicans are concerned, everything in the For the People Act is a “partisan power grab.” Anything that gets more people registered, makes voting easier, reduces gerrymandering, limits voter purges, or tries to reveal who’s behind “dark money” — all provisions of the bill — is seen by Republicans as helping Democrats and therefore completely unacceptable.

That might have been slightly less true a few years ago. But in 2021, restrictions on voting — from making mail voting more difficult to outlawing drop boxes to even stopping people from giving a bottle of water to voters forced to wait on hours-long lines — are not just GOP priorities. They have become the central defining goal of the Republican Party.

That party is now organized around the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, and drastic measures must be taken to ensure that Democrats don’t steal future elections.

Cruz’s comments were reminiscent of a moment that former president Barack Obama relates in his memoir: After being strung along by Republicans for nearly a year while trying to get the Affordable Care Act passed, Obama finally asked Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the chief Republican working on the bill, “Are there any changes — any at all — that would get us your vote?”

Just like Cruz did Tuesday, Grassly paused for a moment before saying, “I guess not, Mr. President.”

No Republican in either house voted for the ACA, just as no Republican will vote for any electoral reform bill sponsored by Democrats. Not one.

Which brings us back to Manchin. There’s an argument about the filibuster and the nature of GOP opposition to the Biden agenda that goes like this. On one side, you have people (like myself) who argue that Republicans are implacably opposed not just to the particular items on the Democrats’ legislative agenda but to the entire idea of allowing President Biden any meaningful legislative victories at all; their political interest lies in Biden being seen as a failure and Congress being seen as ineffectual. Therefore, the only way to achieve anything substantive and produce some measure of democratic responsiveness is to reform the filibuster so legislation can pass the Senate by simple majority.

The other side of the argument, one articulated repeatedly by Manchin, is that the filibuster is an important tool to create bipartisanship and that reforming it is unnecessary because Republicans are willing to join with Democrats and pass bipartisan legislation.

Although there is essentially no evidence for that proposition, let’s imagine for a moment that Manchin is right.

Surely even he would not argue that Republicans will be willing to compromise and join with Democrats on every issue. There are some where they might be more willing — infrastructure, for instance — and some where they won’t budge at all.

If Manchin is willing to admit that, then he must also admit that given how committed the GOP has become to their nationwide effort to restrict the vote, this is one issue on which there is no bipartisanship to be found. Any Republican who even tried would be pilloried on Fox News as a traitor and soon find themselves on the road to excommunication.

They aren’t even trying to argue otherwise. So if electoral reform is ever going to happen, it’s going to have to circumvent the filibuster one way or another. Republicans are holding up a flashing neon sign: We will never, ever cooperate with you on this issue.

Cruz just made this as clear as anyone could possibly ask for. Will Manchin get the message?

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