By now you’ve heard that Sen. Joe Manchin III has essentially declared he has consigned us to a future of minority rule. In a new piece, the West Virginia Democrat says he’ll vote against his party’s voting rights legislation and will never, ever vote to “weaken” the filibuster.

This appears to lock Manchin into a position that guarantees efforts to protect democracy will fail. But it also locks Manchin into a position that will soon grow untenable for him, at least if his own words have any meaning.

That’s because at the heart of Manchin’s stance is a question he cannot answer: What happens when Republicans fail to support any voting rights legislation, including legislation Manchin himself wants?

In his piece for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and on the Sunday shows, Manchin stated three essential propositions:

  1. Acting in defense of voting rights is urgently necessary to defend our freedom
  2. Yet protecting voting rights must only be done on a bipartisan basis, or it cannot happen at all
  3. Therefore, Democrats must continue seeking Republican support, which will ultimately materialize, precisely because the urgency of acting is so great

If all those are true, what happens when that Republican support does not materialize? Should Democrats not act alone at that point? If so, by Manchin’s own lights, our freedom will be in jeopardy, yet they must continue constraining themselves from acting to defend it.

Manchin says in his piece that he supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore federal preclearance requirements for changes in voting rules gutted by the Supreme Court.

Manchin declares this acceptable, because it has “bipartisan support,” as it’s backed by one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But he will vote against the sweeping voting rights protections that passed the House, because no Republicans support it:

I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act.

If rewriting voting rules on a “partisan” basis will destroy our democratic bonds, we already live in that world. GOP state legislatures are passing such changes largely on party lines across the country, including voter suppression, efforts to take control of election machinery to potentially overturn outcomes, and preparations for extreme gerrymanders.

Manchin does not explain why Democrats acting on partisan lines to blunt those changes — as the For the People Act would — will destroy our democracy in a way that allowing those Republican changes to proceed on similarly partisan lines would not.

What’s remarkable, however, is that Manchin holds this position even as he agrees those GOP changes threaten our freedom. Asked by CBS’s John Dickerson why GOP senators would support even the John Lewis measure, given that it would make it harder for GOP legislatures to pass those measures, Manchin said:

The fundamental purpose of our democracy is the freedom of our elections. If we can’t come to an agreement on that, God help us.

Because of what’s at stake, he added, Republicans will “understand we must come together on a voting rights bill in a bipartisan way.”

And when 10 Republicans don’t do this? By Manchin’s own declaration, the “freedom of our elections” is on the line, and failing to defend them — God help us — will be a calamity.

At that point, how does Manchin continue arguing that Democrats must do nothing, on the grounds that voting rules changes cannot be partisan, when this will allow partisan Republican rules changes to proceed undisturbed in a way that Manchin himself declares a threat to freedom?

You’d think Manchin would then have to support suspending the filibuster to pass the John Lewis measure. To be clear, while passing the John Lewis bill would be beneficial, we also need the For the People Act. But the point is, Manchin’s position on the underlying question of whether it’s permissible for Democrats to act alone is unsustainable, at least if his current words have any meaning.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said on June 6 he intends to oppose a sweeping voting rights bill that would expand access to voting across the United States. (Reuters)

A way out

All of which points to a way out for Manchin — if he chooses it.

In his CBS appearance, Manchin hailed the handful of “brave Republicans” in the Senate who voted for the failed Jan. 6 commission, and said this suggests Democrats can still get 10 Republicans to vote for the John Lewis bill.

But when that doesn’t happen, couldn’t Manchin then support, say, lowering the threshold for ending filibusters to 55 Senate votes?

Ira Shapiro, a former counsel for Sen. Robert Byrd of Manchin’s home state and author of two books on the Senate, says this would be consistent with Byrd’s legacy. Byrd, who staged one of history’s most notorious filibusters, ultimately supported lowering that threshold from 67 to 60.

“His nightmare scenario was a paralyzed Senate,” Shapiro told me, speaking of Byrd. “He would have explored any possibility that allowed the Senate to get the work of the nation done. Lowering the threshold is consistent with what he’s supported in the past.”

To be clear, 55 senators will never support the For the People Act. But it’s at least conceivable they might support the John Lewis measure. And lowering the threshold would be worth doing, if it’s all Manchin will ever do.

Beyond this, once it becomes clear that 10 Republicans will not support any voting protections, Manchin will have to say whether he believes Democrats cannot act alone to secure them when the alternative, by his own lights, will be disastrous.

At that point, Manchin may dodge and obfuscate, to be sure. But, if he does continue holding out, that will inevitably be his position. And it’s untenable.

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