The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A glimmer of hope on Joe Manchin and voting rights?

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

By now, you’d be forgiven for concluding the chances of Sen. Joe Manchin III supporting a filibuster carve-out to pass democracy protections are somewhere between nonexistent and extremely nonexistent.

The West Virginia Democrat has spent many months chasing after Republican support for legislation protecting voting rights and democracy, and virtually none has materialized. Yet he continues to insist he won’t support any sort of filibuster reform, even to pass legislation he himself champions that would accomplish something he himself says is essential.

But in an interesting twist, some Senate Democrats still haven’t given up on Manchin. Though the story all over Twitter is that Waiting For Manchin is utterly hopeless, they’re still trying to win him over.

I’m told Manchin and a dozen other Senate Democrats met with an expert on Senate rules and discussed various ways of carving out a filibuster exception or otherwise reforming it to allow passage of voting rights legislation. The meeting was organized by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The ideas included looking at how to change the rules specifically to pass voting rights protections by a simple majority threshold, a Senate Democratic source who shared details of the meeting told me. The source added: “Manchin is engaged.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

The expert whom Manchin and other Democrats met with is Martin Paone, who has three decades of experience in Senate staff positions, the source tells me. Paone will also attend Friday’s caucus meeting among Senate Democrats, where this will get further discussion.

These meetings are separate from another set of meetings going on among Senate Democrats that doesn’t involve Manchin.

Manchin supports a reasonably good package of democracy protections, including things such as automatic voting registration, various curbs on voter suppression and election subversion, limits on partisan gerrymandering, and baseline standards to facilitate voting by mail. Elections expert Richard L. Hasen has declared a package like this worth supporting.

The dynamics on Manchin and the filibuster are more complicated than it seems from the outside. According to a voting rights advocate who has been in discussions with Manchin and other Democratic senators, the basic contours of the situation are as follows.

First, Manchin remains reluctant to support anything seen as a “slippery slope” to ending the filibuster entirely. So it’s more likely he’d support reforms that stop short of a full carve-out of the filibuster to pass voting legislation. Such reforms could include requiring the minority to hold the floor to sustain a filibuster, or requiring 41 votes to sustain one, rather than requiring 60 to end one.

The advocate says Manchin is more open to ideas like these, because they can legitimately be described as “restoring the filibuster.”

This would be a good argument. After all, a filibuster can now be executed simply via an emailed statement from a single senator. That’s obviously a ridiculous state of affairs that allows the minority to render the Senate dysfunctional for bad-faith purposes while escaping procedural difficulties in doing so, and even evading public accountability for it.

Still, ruling out the possibility that Manchin might get to yes on a full carve-out just on voting rights, this advocate tells me, is premature. That’s because pulling the trigger on broad reforms involving the burden on the minority is complicated. Manchin could decide a carve-out just on voting rights is simpler in the interim, the advocate says.

Here’s another nuance. A second source who has been informed about discussions between Manchin and other senators tells me Manchin seems open to arguments that cast filibuster reform as a response to partisan procedural abuses.

In this conception of the situation, that source says, the fact that the Senate can’t pass voting rights legislation “shows that the institution is fundamentally failing,” precisely because it “used to do so on a broad bipartisan basis.”

What’s more, this source says, this sort of filibuster reform wouldn’t be about “passing the left’s priorities,” but instead about “passing changes that are basic to the functioning of democracy.”

Manchin appears open to these arguments as a longtime advocate for bipartisanship in the Senate, the source says, because here it’s obvious the filibuster is being used to further partisan efforts to close down pro-democracy reforms that used to be a bipartisan no-brainer.

And of course, this really is the essence of the matter. Manchin really has spent months in a good-faith effort to win over GOP support for democracy protections that he really does believe are essential to making the system function better.

The only GOP senator who has appeared marginally interested in participating is Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The fact that virtually the entire GOP is uninterested — while GOP state legislatures are passing restrictions on voting everywhere by simple majority — should have weight for Manchin.

Because after all, if democracy reform must be bipartisan, as Manchin says — yet virtually no Republicans will participate, no matter how earnestly Manchin seeks their support — then sticking to that notion is tantamount to allowing Republicans to single-handedly remove democracy reform from the agenda entirely, on a purely partisan basis.

That can’t be acceptable, by Manchin’s own lights.

To be clear, there are still reasons for extreme skepticism that Manchin will ever get to yes. But if he somehow does, these routes might be the way he gets there.

Loading...