Manchin offered a statement ahead of the vote that was quintessential for the West Virginia Democrat. In it, he touted the compromise bill: “These reasonable changes have moved the bill forward and to a place worthy of debate on the Senate floor. This process would allow both Republicans and Democrats to offer amendments to further change the bill.” He added, “Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues refused to allow debate of this legislation despite the reasonable changes made to focus the bill on the core issues facing our democracy.”
But Manchin also said he remains “committed to finding a bipartisan way forward.” Umm, if Republicans are indifferent to reasonable amendments, does that not suggest bipartisanship is a fantasy? No doubt, Manchin’s Democratic colleagues will be pointing that out to him.
The vote was instructive on many levels: First, Biden — under pressure from voting rights groups — apparently helped bring Manchin over the line. That buys both some goodwill. It also suggests voting rights is a top priority that Biden cannot afford to lose. Second, Manchin found a way to stick with his party, just as he did during the reconciliation process to pass the American Rescue Plan. At the very least, he will allow debate on a voting-rights bill. Third, Manchin reiterated that “voting is fundamental,” but remained silent on the filibuster. Fourth, in allowing Manchin’s substitute, which contains voter-ID requirements, Democrats took Republicans’ biggest excuse for not supporting the bill off the table. Republicans do not really care about voting security; they care about too many people voting.
It remains unclear where Democrats go from here. Manchin’s words notwithstanding, Republicans made it perfectly clear they want no voting-rights bill.
One option would be to move up the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to see whether Republicans filibuster that. In all likelihood, that is what will happen. Republicans seem confident that no matter how many times they slap Manchin in the face, he will capitulate and let voting rights die in a filibuster.
The other option would be to give Manchin a reasonable period, yet again, to round up 10 Republicans for any significant version of voting reform. Once this fails, Manchin will face his caucus. The question will be whether a “fundamental right” such as voting can be held hostage by an abuse of the filibuster by a party hostile to bipartisan compromise and easy access to the ballot. The key for Democrats will be to find some workaround that lets Manchin “reform” the filibuster without gutting it entirely. He will need to save face; Democrats will need to get him to a “yes.” There is a sliver of a chance Democrats can figure out a solution.
Manchin’s ability to rally his caucus around a more centrist version of the bill is not a feature of the filibuster. It’s a feature of the 50-50 split wherein Manchin’s vote is needed even for a majority vote. That remains true unless and until Democrats pad their majority. For now, Manchin remains the most important man in the Senate; he is the only person who will decide whether to throw democracy itself a lifeline or to capitulate to a new Jim Crow movement. The stakes could not be higher.