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Opinion Time to call Manchin’s bluff

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. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Reuters)
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Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) declared in a Sunday op-ed that he is against the For the People Act because it is not bipartisan. “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,” he wrote. “Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”

Let’s take H.R. 1 first. He does not state what provisions he likes or doesn’t, nor does he suggest what compromise bill might reach 60 votes. So his objection is that Republicans object? Many bills that he supported came without Republican support — the American Rescue Plan, most recently, and of course, the Affordable Care Act. The notion that Republicans win simply by refusing to agree to any of the majority’s legislative proposals makes a mockery of democracy, and specifically of the Senate. Indeed, Republicans’ filibuster of the Jan. 6 commission legislation showed that we lack 10 Republicans willing to operate in good faith.

Manchin also states that he prefers H.R. 4, which addresses only reauthorization of preclearance provisions. He argued, “The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update the formula states and localities must use to ensure proposed voting laws do not restrict the rights of any particular group or population. My Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has joined me in urging Senate leadership to update and pass this bill through regular order.” But where are the 10 Republicans to support that measure? Manchin is “encouraged by the desire from both sides to transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.” Yet when 10 Republicans do not emerge for cloture on that either — just as we saw on the Jan. 6 commission bill — does Manchin simply give up?

It’s time for Manchin to put up or share blame for Republicans’ subversion of democracy. Let him come up with 10 Republicans for H.R. 4 and for a slimmed down H.R. 1. Let him find four more Republicans to support the Jan. 6 commission. If he cannot, then his thesis that the filibuster promotes debate and makes way for compromise collapses and his role in promoting the tyranny of the minority is laid bare.

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Manchin insisted that he will not “weaken or eliminate” the filibuster. He should be compelled to spell out what reforms he would accept. Is requiring Republicans to hold the floor (i.e., demanding a talking filibuster) “weakening” the rule? It is well past the time to start pressuring Manchin to answer some basic questions: If the filibuster is simply a means of thwarting any reasonable legislation, why is it worth preserving? What if the integrity of our democracy is at stake?

Manchin’s bland platitudes suggest he prefers stalemate to taking hard votes. The status quo leaves him with latitude to make holier-than-thou pronouncements to decry both sides.

Elevating the filibuster to the sine qua non of our constitutional system is absurd. It is not in the Constitution. It protects no constitutional principle. It does not constitute a check or balance on the other branches as, for example, a veto override or the Senate’s advise and consent power on nominees. It does not protect minority rights when it is used to thwart voting rights protection for disfavored minorities.

Moreover, the republic survived previous changes to the filibuster, such as reducing cloture to 60 votes, eliminating the filibuster for executive branch nominees and carving out budget reconciliation. There is no reason to assume another modification — one to ensure the fundamental right to vote — would be any more harmful.

What are Democrats to do with someone so seemingly irrational and obstinate as Manchin?

First, Democrats should compel Republicans to filibuster again and again the bills Manchin himself thinks are entirely reasonable. Bring up H.R. 4. Put the Jan. 6 commission back on the floor. After 5 or 6 of these rounds, Manchin’s bipartisan fetish may subside.

Second, Manchin’s Democratic colleagues have a right to demand he present compromise legislation that has 10 Republicans. What magic formula is he aware of that has evaded others? Where are four more Republicans in addition to the six who would support the Jan. 6 commission?

And finally, voters and voting rights activists need to confront Manchin civilly and peacefully, but with unrelenting demands for him to justify his position. An array of interest groups hurt by Republican obstruction and assaults on voting rights — e.g., organized labor, seniors, the disabled community — must turn up the heat. Most of all, Capitol Hill police and other law enforcement officials must demand passage of the Jan. 6 commission — or Manchin’s agreement to push it through with less than 60 votes. They and the widows of law enforcement personnel killed from the Jan. 6 events need to be omnipresent and unrelenting.

The time for Manchin’s excuse-mongering is over. It is time to demonstrate his bipartisan notions are more than fantasy. And if he cannot, he needs to choose his legacy: He either ushers in democracy’s demise or refuses to allow Republicans to dismantle democracy before our eyes. That’s certainly the only thing for which he’ll be remembered.

Jennifer Rubin is getting her own weekly live chat, where she’ll answer questions and respond to comments from readers on the news of the week every Friday at noon. Submit yours to her first chat, launching on June 11, here.

Read more:

James Downie: Joe Manchin’s mighty delusions

Dana Milbank: Will Republicans filibuster all of this?

Dana Milbank: Republicans aren’t ‘looking forward.’ They’re stepping into a Jim Crow past.

Jennifer Rubin: There’s one voting reform that would have the greatest impact

Paul Waldman: Biden wants to ‘pressure’ Congress on voting rights. If only he could.

Jonathan Capehart: Kamala Harris is ready for the fight to save voting rights