The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans slam the door on the John Lewis Act — but there is a better way

Demonstrators in Atlanta stop at the John Lewis Mural during a march for voting rights on Aug. 28. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
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Election Day was approaching in the Democratic candidate’s November 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate. His Republican opponent was closing in and linking him to President Barack Obama, whose approval rating was only at 30 percent in the state.

To distance himself, that candidate, then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, took aim at the president — by putting out a campaign advertisement showing him loading a rifle in the fall forest and firing at one of Obama’s major policy initiatives.

Said Manchin: “I’ll take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets.” He declared, “I’ll cut federal spending and I’ll repeal the bad parts of Obamacare.” And he bragged, “I sued the EPA, and I’ll take dead aim [gunshot heard] at the cap-and-trade bill.”

This story is not intended to mark now-Sen. Manchin as a self-serving politician working against his president to make himself look good. Or to pile on Manchin for his opposition to the current policy preferences of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

I cite Manchin’s firing at Obama’s agenda to make an opposing point: To engage in the political process, label an opponent a pariah over a single issue, then slam the door and leave the room, is a serious mistake.

It was an angry Obama who went to the White House Rose Garden on April 17, 2013, to denounce the Senate for rejecting a deal on expanded gun background checks crafted by two senators.

Said Obama: “We had a Democrat and a Republican, both gun owners, both fierce defenders of our Second Amendment, with ‘A’ grades from the NRA, come together and work together to write a common-sense compromise on background checks. And I want to thank Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey for their courage in doing that.”

Candidate Manchin, who took a shot at Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, had become Sen. Manchin, against whom the National Rifle Association purchased television and radio spots accusing him of aiding Obama’s support for gun control.

And it is this same Manchin who is co-sponsoring the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which civil rights groups describe as critical legislation to restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and prevent barriers to the ballot for Black, Latino, Indigenous, young and new Americans.

The Manchin lesson applies to hammering out an agreement between centrist and progressive Democrats on a “Build Back Better” plan. And it is certainly applicable to efforts to enact the John Lewis Act, which fell victim to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) effort to prevent the Senate from even debating the bill.

McConnell’s weapon of choice was the filibuster — the same sword wielded by past civil rights opponents. Under the rules, McConnell’s minority bloc is positioned to prevent even a vote. That’s what it did this week, delivering a blow more deadly than Manchin’s faux shot at Obama’s climate proposal in 2010.

McConnell’s opposition is no surprise. “One hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration,” he said in May, and he hasn’t deviated one bit.

More disturbing, however, are some of the bricks that form the Republican wall of opposition. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act represents the essence of Lewis’s lifelong struggle: equality at the ballot box.

Hear the bricks following Lewis’s death:

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)tweeted: “John Lewis had a backbone of steel surrounded by a gentle spirit. His determination produced important changes.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a statement: “[Lewis] was unwavering in his fight for equality and worked tirelessly to ensure that America’s God-given freedoms are enjoyed by all.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) tweeted: “With the passing of Congressman John Lewis, America has lost a civil rights icon who changed history at great personal sacrifice.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tweeted: “Congressman John Lewis will be remembered for many things, but his tireless work as a civil rights leader and dedication to fighting for the oppressed changed the course of history. He made an impact not just on Georgia, but the world.”

Sen. Lindsey O.Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted: “John Lewis was one of the strongest and most effective voices during the Civil Rights era and maintained a passion for his causes until the very end. He lived a consequential life and worked hard to make America a more perfect Union. His voice will be missed.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tweeted: “With the passing of John Lewis, America has lost not only a man of history, but a man for our season; O how we need such men of unwavering principle, unassailable character, penetrating purpose, and heartfelt compassion.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) tweeted that Lewis “was a giant among men; his life and legacy will continue to serve as an example for the generations to come. I am encouraged by his courage, determination, and perseverance, characteristics that we can all try to emulate — especially in the wake of current events.”

So why won’t these GOP senators allow the Senate to legislate on a measure that protects and advances the sterling legacy of John Lewis?

The door is open. Break free of McConnell, Republicans, and move the Lewis Act forward. Manchin found a way.