Manchin remains the focal point in Washington. After an hour-long virtual meeting Monday morning, the senator told reporters Tuesday that he has not changed his mind about the For the People Act — Democrats’ far-reaching elections, ethics and campaign finance overhaul, which has the backing of top party leaders including President Biden.
Manchin said the meeting was “constructive,” “respectful,” “informative” and “excellent” at various points in a brief exchange with reporters. But asked whether talking to the civil rights leaders — who included the heads of the NAACP, the National Urban League and other groups — had changed his views, the senator said they had not.
According to interviews with several of the civil rights leaders who participated, the discussion was indeed courteous and substantive. But they said it produced little meaningful progress in bridging the gulf between the advocates, who consider the spate of GOP state laws as an assault on American democracy, and Manchin, who has said that any change to federal voting laws must be done in cooperation with Republicans.
“We went in understanding we had a disagreement,” said Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, who organized the meeting before Manchin announced his opposition to the bill. “In the meeting, we talked candidly and frankly and when we walked out of the meeting, there were no agreements on anything except to continue the dialogue.”
Manchin has proposed passing an alternative bill, known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, that would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, but that measure also is likely to be blocked by a filibuster.
While Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is backing the alternative bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear Tuesday that most Republicans would oppose it, calling it an “unnecessary” license for the Justice Department to intervene in state election laws.
What Democrats are trying to do directly through the For the People Act, McConnell said, “they would try to achieve indirectly through this rewrite of the Voting Rights Act.”
The civil rights leaders told Manchin that the narrower bill would not be enough, a message that was echoed Tuesday by a key civil rights group and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
After the meeting, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — an umbrella group of prominent civil rights and labor organizations — sent a letter to top Senate leaders that said both the For the People and John Lewis bills are “essential to counter the unprecedented wave of voter suppression laws advancing in the states” and warned against viewing them as competing alternatives.
“In short . . . each fill a distinct and critical role in combating voter suppression and protecting our democracy,” the group said.
Also Tuesday morning, Pelosi said in a letter to fellow House Democrats that the John Lewis bill — named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights leader — would not be ready for action until fall because of an effort, she said, to make it “ironclad” against future court challenges. She echoed the advocates in saying that “it is not a substitute” for the broader bill.
Wade Henderson, the Leadership Conference’s top executive, said in an interview after the meeting that he sought to rebut Manchin’s overriding objection, that the voting rights efforts are not bipartisan.
That, Henderson said, ignores the Republican-only nature of the voting measures that have been advanced in statehouses nationwide.
“You have 22 new laws enacted in 14 states, and you have 61 bills under consideration now moving through 18 states, and these are some of the most restrictive provisions on voting rights since the Jim Crow era,” he said. “These are as partisan a set of initiatives as you could possibly get, and it is important to recognize it for what it is.”
Democratic state lawmakers trying to fend off Republican proposals to curtail voting access are increasingly frustrated over the inaction in Washington.
More than three dozen state lawmakers from Arizona delivered a letter Tuesday to Sinema telling her that “more leadership is necessary” to pass the For the People Act. Sinema, along with every other Democrat besides Manchin, is a co-sponsor of the bill, but lawmakers said they are dissatisfied with her lack of urgency or advocacy for it.
In an interview, state Rep. Athena Salman, one of the signatories, said: “The thing that’s so frustrating is that urgency to do the bare minimum to fight for and protect our democracy — I just have yet to see it from our senior senator.”
A Sinema spokesperson defended her advocacy for the voting rights bills, noting in that she “strongly believes the right to vote, faith in the integrity of our electoral process, and trust in elected officials are critical to the health and vitality of our democracy.”
Similarly, dozens of Texas lawmakers have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Pelosi and Biden underscoring what they described as the urgent need for federal action given the near-certainty that Republicans will try again to pass voting restrictions in the state after Democrats blocked action last week on the legislation known as Senate Bill 7 by denying Republicans a quorum.
The letter will be delivered Wednesday, according to several Texas Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a draft document.
In addition, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tex.) said he’s reached out to congressional leaders to try to arrange an in-person meeting with Texas lawmakers so they can hear for themselves what’s happening in the states. “I have to keep my hopes up,” Veasey said. “Otherwise, in Texas, it’s not going to be good.”
Voting rights advocates were also planning to increase pressure on the business community to oppose voting restrictions in the states and to support federal legislation, according to several advocates who requested anonymity to discuss preliminary plans.
Manchin has not publicly identified any policy provision in the For the People Act that he objects to, and multiple participants in the Tuesday meeting said that he largely maintained that posture in their conversation.
Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the NAACP, said that specific policy fixes were not discussed during the meeting.
“He clearly understands the impact of the lack of protections, so it’s a matter of working really hard to come up with a solution,” Johnson said. “I think he understands the gravity of this moment and the importance of building a framework and is open to pursuing a course that can get us to a good place.”
The meeting, according to participants, included not only a discussion of the state-level voting restrictions but also an examination of the filibuster and its history of being used to block civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The filibuster has been used to block Jim Crow legislation time and time again or has been used to advance Jim Crow points of view,” Morial said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, said Manchin retorted at one point that Democrats had used the filibuster in recent years to block Republican legislation and nominations and defended the process.
Manchin’s Senate colleagues have been growing impatient, and they have pushed Manchin to deliver a detailed list of the provisions in the For the People Act that he supports and he opposes.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Schumer recommitted to bringing the For the People Act for a vote in less than three weeks, ahead of an expected July pivot to infrastructure legislation.
Although many Democrats have privately acknowledged that Manchin is unlikely to budge on the filibuster, some lawmakers and aides think that he might be persuaded to vote to at least start debate on a voting bill, which would allow for an amendment process.
In a caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats discussed the next steps, including possible strategies for bringing the bill to the floor that could involve breaking it into smaller pieces, according to multiple attendees. Manchin did not attend, but top party leaders made clear they were willing to hear him out.
“Is it possible we might change a few things here and there?” Schumer said. “We’ve had discussions with Senator Manchin, and they’re continuing. . . . We’re open to changes and modifications as long as it does the job.”
Manchin would not say Tuesday whether he would vote to open debate on a voting bill. Nor would he say whether he had spoken to Biden in recent days about his opposition to the legislation.
“Our conversations are always confidential,” he said.
Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.