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Nick Saban, Jerry West urge Manchin to support voting rights legislation

Several sports leaders with ties to West Virginia signed a letter appealing to the senator to support the Freedom to Vote Act

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), after a meeting attended by President Biden and Senate Democrats on voting rights and the filibuster on Capitol Hill on Jan. 13. (Sarah Silbiger/for The Washington Post)
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Several West Virginia sports leaders are urging Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to support federal voting rights legislation, as he remains steadfast in his refusal to change Senate rules that would make passing such legislation possible.

News of the move came as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that the Senate would vote this week to establish a “talking filibuster” procedure that could allow Democrats to pass voting rights legislation at a 51-vote margin — but Manchin balked at the idea.

In a letter sent to Manchin last week, five sports leaders — most with ties to West Virginia — said they “strongly support urgently needed legislation that will protect both the rights of voters and the integrity of outcomes in all Federal elections.” The Freedom to Vote Act, one of two bills that Democrats are trying to advance to protect voting rights, “effectively addressed these goals,” they added.

The letter was signed by former Los Angeles Laker and NBA executive Jerry West; Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama; former Houston Oiler and XFL commissioner Oliver Luck; former NFL linebacker Darryl Talley; and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

“We come from some of our Nation’s most popular sports leagues, conferences and teams,” they wrote, noting that some of them were past rivals in sports or business. “But we are all certain that democracy is best when voting is open to everyone on a level playing field; the referees are neutral; and at the end of the game the final score is respected and accepted.”

The sports leaders warned that those tenets “are now under intentional and unprecedented challenge,” alluding to efforts by former president Donald Trump and his supporters, including Republican-led state legislatures, to interfere with the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“We are united now in urging Congress to exercise its Constitutional responsibility to enact laws that set national standards for the conduct of Federal elections and for decisions that determine election outcomes,” they wrote. “These guarantee that all Americans have an equal voice in our democracy and that Federal elections are conducted with integrity so that the votes of all eligible voters determine the election outcomes.”

President Biden, while speaking in Atlanta on Jan. 11, endorsed changing the Senate filibuster rule to ease passage of voting rights bills. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Freedom to Vote Act would create national rules for voting by mail, early voting and other parts of the electoral process. Another bill that Democrats are hoping to pass, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore the federal government’s authority to review certain state voting laws to prevent discrimination.

The Senate began debate on the bills Tuesday, pressing ahead despite near-unified Republican opposition and obstacles within Democratic ranks to changing Senate rules.

“The eyes of the nation will be watching what happens this week in the United States Senate, just a few days removed from what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr.'s 93rd birthday,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday, as he called up the bill for debate.

Schumer acknowledged that the bills are not likely to pass but said the public was entitled to know where each senator stands on the issue.

“Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face difficult odds, especially when virtually every Senate Republican … is staunchly against legislation protecting the right to vote,” Schumer said. “But I want to be clear: When this chamber confronts a question — this important one so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to the future of our democracy — you don’t slide it off the table and say, never mind.”

Manchin told reporters he would not support any changes to Senate rules that would erode the existing 60-vote supermajority requirement to pass most legislation, dooming the effort.

“I just don’t know how you break a rule to make a rule,” Manchin said, adding that the 60-vote filibuster was needed to preserve “checks and balances” in a government controlled by one party.

He noted that many of his fellow Democrats used to feel the same way, with dozens signing a 2017 letter calling for the filibuster’s preservation when Republicans held unified control in Washington.

“The majority of my colleagues in the caucus, Democrat caucus, they’ve changed — they’ve changed their mind,” Manchin said. “I respect that. You have a right to change your mind. I haven’t. I hope they respect that, too. I’ve never changed my mind on the filibuster.”

The votes could take place as soon as Wednesday evening, probably bringing Democrats’ year-long struggle to pass voting legislation to a frustrating end.

While details of the rules proposal remained sketchy Tuesday evening, Schumer said it would be limited only to the pending voting rights legislation. It would limit senators to two speeches on the topic, and once debate was fully exhausted, the chamber could move to a simple majority vote on final passage.

It is largely similar to a proposal that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has pitched to his colleagues for years, predating the voting rights push. It has picked up steam in recent months as Democrats have struggled to find a path forward on voting rights.

The change would transform the filibuster from a tool of obstruction, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, to a “public and transparent filibuster” that would make senators “accountable for their actions.”

The announcement came a day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday and as Democrats have tried to seize on the symbolism of the civil rights-era icon as well as the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to advance their agenda.

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who also serves as pastor of King’s former church in Atlanta, criticized politicians Tuesday who embrace King as a historical figure on the holiday with “plaudits and platitudes” but do not embrace his agenda.

“You cannot remember Martin Luther King Jr. and dismember his legacy at the same time,” he said, adding, “This is a moral moment and you have to decide.”

Civil rights groups and many Democrats have intensified their pressure over the past month to change the Senate’s filibuster rules so that the bills can be passed without meeting a 60-vote threshold. In a speech last week in Atlanta, President Biden voiced his support for getting rid of the filibuster to pass voting rights bills, a monumental shift from his stance throughout his decades in Washington.

What had changed, Biden said in the speech, was that he believed democracy was at critical risk.

“The United States Senate, designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, has been rendered a shell of its former self,” Biden said then. “I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills.”

Republican leaders have mocked such concerns, and frequently quoted past arguments from Democrats for preserving the 60-vote threshold against them. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said Democrats were engaging in “Chicken Little rhetoric” and called their “hysteria” fake.

“Until the last couple of years, senators on both sides have understood that the Senate is not here to rubber-stamp massive changes by thin majorities,” McConnell said in defense of the filibuster. “This institution exists to do exactly the opposite, to make sure major laws receive major buy-in and have major staying power.”

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also acknowledged that Biden was aware it was an uphill battle.

“In terms of voting rights, his view is that it’s never a good idea not to shoot for the moon with what your proposals are and what you’re fighting for,” she said. “And the alternative is to fight for nothing and to fight for nothing hard.”

However, Manchin has said repeatedly that he does not support changing the Senate’s filibuster rules without Republican support. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) also has said she is not willing to overhaul the filibuster.

“We need some good rules changes, and we can do that together,” Manchin said last week. “But you change the rules with two-thirds of the people that are present so it’s Democrats, Republicans changing the rules to make the place work better. Getting rid of the filibuster does not make it work better.”

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and others stood strong on their positions regarding voting rights bills. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Nevertheless, Senate Democrats have vowed to continue their efforts to pass the bills this week, saying it was important for senators to at least record their votes for history. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Sunday called it an “existential issue.”

“We all have to be recorded at this moment in time about where are we in protecting the right to vote,” Kaine said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) acknowledged Sunday that the voting rights bills were “on life support,” but he insisted that the larger battle is far from over.

“John Lewis and others did not give up after the ’64 Civil Rights Act. That’s why he got the ’65 Voting Rights Act,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “So, I want to tell everybody, we’re not giving up. We’re going to fight. And we plan to win, because the people of goodwill are going to break their silence and help us win this battle.”

Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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