The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pressure mounts on Manchin as ‘panic’ sets in among Democrats over voting rights

President Biden on June 1 appeared to call out Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for aligning too closely with Republicans. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democratic leaders and activists are urgently stepping up pressure on Sen. Joe Manchin III to support legislation to fight Republican-led voting restrictions across the country, with party officials increasingly concluding that the battle over voting rights could come down to what the centrist Democrat from West Virginia does.

In a rare show of public frustration with his own party on Tuesday, President Biden appeared to lash out at Manchin when he accused a pair of unnamed senators of aligning too closely with Republicans and stalling efforts to pass sweeping voting standards.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently announced that his chamber would vote this month on a House-passed elections bill co-sponsored by every Democratic senator except Manchin — a move that would force Manchin to pick a side in a fight that has taken on new urgency in recent weeks.

Even some of Manchin’s Democratic colleagues are beginning to prod him more aggressively to join their cause, while activists and civil rights leaders are loudly decrying his hesitation.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said Wednesday that he and other civil rights leaders plan to meet with Manchin next week to talk about the importance of supporting Democrats’ voting legislation. “The idea there is not to attack Manchin but to appeal to him,” said Sharpton. He said NAACP President Derrick Johnson and National Urban League President Marc Morial are also expected at the Tuesday meeting.

The obstacle Manchin poses to his party’s voting rights effort is twofold: He is also one of several Democrats who oppose changing Senate rules to advance legislation with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority. While Manchin is not alone in his party in opposing the elimination of the filibuster, he has emerged as one of its most prominent defenders, which has made him a lightning rod for frustrated Democrats in the early months of Biden’s presidency.

In April, Manchin wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” Last month, he told reporters that “I’m adamantly opposed to dividing our country any further” and said that “a major policy change such as [the voting bill that] goes down on partisan lines would be very detrimental and, I think, very harmful to our country.”

Some fear that his position will enable Republicans to block Democratic plans to address climate change, gun violence and immigration, even though his party controls the White House and Congress. When it comes to voting laws, Manchin has struck the most sensitive nerve.

Democrats increasingly see an existential threat from Republican-led state governments determined to place new limits on voting, which critics say would disproportionately affect voters of color, a core part of the Democratic coalition. One Democratic congressional aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said “panic” is the right word to describe the mood in the party.

The GOP moves, which include scaling back the use of ballot drop boxes, limiting access to mail ballots and creating new identification requirements, threaten to make it harder for Democrats to keep their congressional majorities in the midterms and hold the White House in 2024.

Florida, Georgia and Arizona, all battleground states with potentially competitive Senate races, have enacted new Republican voting laws this year, while a Republican attempt to do so in Texas was thwarted by Democratic state legislators over the weekend. As former president Donald Trump continues to claim the 2020 election was tainted by fraud despite no evidence to back his assertion, Republicans say they are safeguarding future votes. Many Democrats argue the Republican strategy is a threat to democracy.

“This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I’ve never seen,” Biden said Tuesday in Tulsa, where he marked the 100th anniversary of a massacre of Black residents. “It’s completely un-American.”

Sharpton, who attended the speech, said he briefly spoke with Biden there, reiterating to the president that voting rights is a crucial priority. “He said, ‘I understand that, Al.’ And he says, ‘I’m doing what I can, and I understand what y’all want to do,’ ” recalled Sharpton of Biden’s response. He said Biden committed to discussing the topic more in an upcoming meeting with civil rights leaders that organizers are seeking to schedule.

Biden has come under growing pressure from Democrats demanding that he use the powers of his office to combat the Republican strategy.

“That is a problem with the Democratic Party. What you see with Republicans — they stick together no matter what,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a civil rights leader who attended Biden’s speech in Tulsa. “They need to let Manchin understand we elected Joe Biden — not Joe Manchin — to be president.”

White House officials have argued that Biden has already made strides, pointing to an executive order he signed in March to expand voting access. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from moving swiftly to change the laws in key states. The only real answer, in the eyes of many Democrats, is federal legislation.

“This legislation is the ballgame,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), speaking of the For the People Act, the marquee Democratic voting bill that Schumer vowed to bring to the Senate floor this month. “If we want any fair strike zone or distance between the bases, we’ve got to pass this.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has helped spearhead the For the People Act in the Senate, accused Republicans of waging a “continuing insurrection” after their 2020 electoral losses. She said colleagues such as Sens. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) have spoken up in “heartfelt caucus meetings” about concerns over new laws or proposals in their states. Klobuchar said she has had discussions with Manchin, including about changes she pursued in the legislation to ease concerns of the West Virginia secretary of state. “He’s well aware of them,” said Klobuchar. With the bill headed to the Senate floor, she added, “to me, it’s a jump ball.”

In a nod to the anxieties in his party and the shrinking window for passing major legislation before lawmakers turn their attention to the midterm elections next year, Biden said Tuesday that “June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill” as he offered a blunt defense for the inaction that plagued his earliest months in office.

“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” he said. “But we’re not giving up.”

Although Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) stand out in the Democratic caucus for both their willingness to work with the other side and their support for the filibuster, both vote mostly with the party. But the point of Biden’s remark was clear, sending a sharp message about his willingness to call out even some of his allies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki sought to defuse tensions on Wednesday, saying that Biden was not criticizing the two Democrats and arguing that “sometimes, these conversations can be oversimplified.” She added, “I don’t think he was intending to convey anything other than a little bit of commentary on TV punditry.”

Representatives for Manchin and Sinema declined to comment. Unlike Manchin, Sinema is a co-sponsor of the For the People Act, though she does not support overturning the filibuster to pass it.

Here’s what you need to know about the procedure’s complicated history meant to delay, delay, delay. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

While both of their positions stand as huge barriers to passing the bill, which is a catchall for numerous liberal priorities on voting rights, government ethics and campaign finance, Manchin’s unwillingness to embrace the bill on its merits is especially alarming to Democrats.

Some of the provisions would set minimum standards for early voting and vote-by-mail that could override some of the state Republican voting laws. Others would force transparency for “dark money” donations to politically active nonprofit groups.

Manchin has expressed support for these proposals, while remaining silent on other provisions, such as mandating nonpartisan redistricting commissions and establishing a public financing system for congressional campaigns.

Manchin has said his overriding concern is a lack of bipartisan support for the measure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his colleagues have united in opposition to any federal attempt to dictate state election laws.

With the Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, Manchin and Sinema have emerged as two of the most influential figures in government. If Biden and Schumer lose the support of even one of them on any given vote, they must find at least one Republican to join them — an almost impossible task given the strong partisan divisions that have come to define governance.

Manchin in particular has embraced his powerful status, often sending warning shots to Democrats seeking to challenge him to fall in line. As a Democratic officeholder from a conservative state where Trump twice won handily, Manchin is eager to showcase any distance from party leadership.

Biden announced Tuesday that he has tapped Vice President Harris, who has clashed with Manchin, to tackle voting rights.

After Harris went on a West Virginia news station to pitch Biden’s pandemic relief bill this year, Manchin said he was flabbergasted. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said on WSAZ-TV. “No one called me.”

Now, Harris and Manchin will be two of the most closely watched Democrats on voting rights. Harris issued a statement saying she planned to work with “voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector.” She added, “we will also work with members of Congress.”

With their majority dependent on complete unity and Harris’s tiebreaking vote — and Manchin and Sinema clear about their wariness about changing Senate rules — Schumer and other Democrats formulated a strategy aimed at proving to the holdouts that Republican intransigence will always dash their hopes of bipartisanship.

But it wasn’t until Friday that Republicans actually blocked a Democratic bill — when efforts to close debate and vote on creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection failed, 54 to 35. Schumer announced his intention to move forward with the voting bill just moments after the vote.

Manchin told reporters after the commission vote that he was “very, very frustrated” and that the Republican opposition was “truly disheartening.”

But he showed no sign that he was willing to budge on the filibuster, saying he was “not ready to destroy our government” and that Democrats “have to have faith there’s 10 good people” in the GOP ranks willing to join them on legislation.

As the only Democratic senator who has opposed moving forward with the substance of the For the People Act, arguing that the bill as written is “too darn broad” and that it would be a mistake to proceed with voting legislation without bipartisan support, Manchin has drawn concerns from his own colleagues behind closed doors.

This dynamic was on display last week in a closed Senate Democratic Caucus meeting, according to multiple attendees. The party’s top elections lawyer, Marc Elias, briefed members on the scope and scale of the state-level GOP efforts underway, and several senators pleaded for action as Manchin listened. None mentioned the West Virginian by name, the attendees said, but one said the discussion was definitely directed at Manchin.

Democrats are hoping that Schumer’s decision to bring the measure to the floor for a vote could force Manchin off his position — or at least demonstrate that Republicans are unwilling to even debate the issue. Failing to reach even 50 votes would be an embarrassing setback for Democrats, who have described the present threat to voting rights and democracy in increasingly stark terms. But that possibility continues to loom over Schumer’s gambit.

Some Democrats are hopeful Manchin will come around, given his track record. Despite his well-tended reputation as a centrist maverick, Manchin to date has generally been a team player for Democrats. After airing some misgivings about the scope of Biden’s $2 trillion pandemic relief package and forcing some rollbacks to unemployment benefits, for example, he voted for the bill. No Republican in the House or Senate supported it.

Though Manchin derailed Biden’s first nominee for budget director, Neera Tanden, he has supported several other controversial administration nominees, such as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Pentagon official Colin Kahl and two senior Justice Department officials, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke.

By allowing pressure for action to build over time, Schumer has in effect sought to run a playbook used by his predecessor as Democratic Senate leader, Harry M. Reid of Nevada. When Reid led the 2013 effort to invoke the “nuclear option” and change Senate rules to allow for the confirmation of most presidential nominees on a simple majority vote, that effort took shape over the course of months, with Reid bringing up some judicial nominees repeatedly to demonstrate a GOP blockade and unify his caucus.

In the end, however, his caucus was not completely unified. Three Democrats voted to keep the 60-vote threshold for nominees; one of them was Manchin.

John Wagner contributed to this report.