Congressional Democrats are scrambling to find a path forward on ambitious voting rights proposals — and much of the rest of their agenda — after Senator Joe Manchin dug into his longtime position that legislation must include backing from Republicans to earn his vote.
The moderate Democrat from deep-red West Virginia wrote in a recent op-ed that he will only back election bills that gain at least one Republican colleague’s support, and that he will not vote to end the legislative filibuster, which requires Democrats to attract significant Republican support to pass most bills.
At one time, that position used to be a fairly conventional line in the sand. But given the current chasm between the parties, Manchin’s pronouncement could doom much of the Democratic agenda, including a massive infrastructure package and universal preschool, and has exposed tensions among Democrats over what compromising and bipartisanship even mean after the Capitol insurrection and the presidency of Donald Trump.
“If we are going to shut down the Senate and not do anything big between now and the next election, we might as well hand the election over to Republicans,” said Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat.
Manchin argued in his op-ed that passing sweeping election legislation such as the “For the People Act” along partisan lines would “destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy,” adding that Republicans and Democrats must learn to come together on such a critical issue for the sake of the country.
But some from his own party criticized his position as naive, given that Republican-led state legislatures have begun passing a host of laws restricting voting while citing the same false claims made by Trump about fraud in the 2020 election that fueled an attack on the Capitol five months ago.
“The bottom line is that Manchin is a hypocrite,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, a group aimed at empowering Black voters. “This whole notion, making a statement that voting rights has been politicized. He is damn right — Republicans have politicized it. They have turned a basic civil right into a political volley.”
The controversy is drawing attention to a larger divide among Democrats, many of whom have shifted away from prioritizing bipartisanship in the years after Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell frequently stonewalled former President Barack Obama and kept him from appointing a Supreme Court justice. That shift was accelerated by the events of Jan. 6, which have caused even President Biden, who won election partially on his promises to work with both Republicans and Democrats, to sometimes sound despairing about the party. (”I don’t understand the Republicans,” Biden conceded last month as they purged Representative Liz Cheney from leadership.)
McConnell further fueled the skepticism among Democrats when he acknowledged that he was “100 percent” focused on standing up to the Biden administration in May. Senate Republicans also filibustered a bill to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack, shelving hopes among their Democratic colleagues that the GOP was willing to reject antidemocratic forces within it that sought to overturn an election.
Yet, Manchin and some other moderate Democrats have continued to espouse a belief in a bipartisan time of comity and mutual understanding virtually unrecognizable to many in this political climate.
“I have no idea what he is talking about when it comes to bipartisanship because when I worked for Senator Kennedy, compromise was not a dirty word and cutting a deal was not impossible,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked as a staffer to the late senator Edward M. Kennedy. “In this day and age, there is no cutting deals with Mitch McConnell.”
While most of Manchin’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate have declined to criticize him, some party members in the House are openly grumbling. On Monday, Representative Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, called Manchin the “new Mitch McConnell” and an “obstructionist” in an interview with CNN.
Manchin is the most vocal opponent of ending the filibuster, but several other Democratic senators, including Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, have also expressed opposition. And some Republicans said they do see potential for compromise, pointing to the passage of a major bipartisan bill designed to counter China’s influence on Tuesday. They also expressed openness to major Biden administration priorities such as infrastructure and police reform, though infrastructure talks between Biden and Republicans broke down on Tuesday. That breakdown gives Manchin a chance to prove bipartisanship is still possible, as he is among the centrist Democrats who will now try to salvage the infrastructure deal by negotiating with Republicans.
Criticism of Manchin has been particularly pointed from voting rights groups and civil rights leaders who have been pleading for help from Washington as they face off with Republicans at the state level pushing bills that could make it harder for people of color, poor people, and young people to vote. They point to the historic use of the filibuster to block civil rights legislation, and say Democrats crafted the massive voting bill precisely to make elections less partisan and prevent power grabs from any one party.
The Poor People’s Campaign, a rekindling of a movement once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., this week announced it would hold a “Moral March on Manchin.” The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, its cochairman, said it would be led by “West Virginians of all colors, creeds . . . from the hood to the hollers.”
“People in West Virginia have invited us to lead the March on Manchin because he is standing with the filibuster, he has refused to support the For the People Act,” Barber said. “The filibuster has never been used to bring people together. It was used in defense of slavery, it was used against women’s suffrage . . . against civil rights.”
Manchin met with civil rights leaders on Tuesday to discuss police reform and the voting proposals, including a second bill with a narrower scope, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which he supports and would reestablish parts of a 1965 law that required federal approval before states could change their voting laws.
Speaking outside the meeting, Manchin called the advocates “the most talented, informative, and respectable group that I’ve spoken to in a long, long time,” but he said no one had changed positions on the For the People Act.
“We’re just learning where everybody’s coming from,” Manchin said.
Manchin, a former governor and secretary of state in West Virginia, has survived election after election in a state that has moved steadily to the right in part by fiercely embracing bipartisanship and developing a reputation as a fair broker to both parties.
As governor, Manchin forged a reputation for forcing opposing sides to negotiate, such as when his state tackled workers’ compensation reform and health and safety rules in the coal industry.
“I remember he told me once that if you got a piece of legislation, regardless of what party you are in, if you can’t get one vote from the other side of the aisle, it is probably a bad piece of legislation,” said Mike Caputo, a longtime friend of Manchin and a Democratic state senator in West Virginia.
Now, Manchin wields tremendous power in the Senate as one of the most moderate Democrats making up a slim majority. He initially balked at voting for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, but eventually came around, even though it did not receive a single vote from a Republican. Democratic leaders are struggling to gauge his stance on a $1.7 trillion infrastructure package.
“Sometimes, you have to think that the most powerful Joe in Washington is not Joe Biden — it’s Joe Manchin,” Caputo said.