Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Sunday said he would not support federal voting rights legislation that his party has argued is critical for preserving democracy, in an announcement that effectively turned the path ahead for all other major items on President Joe Biden’s agenda into quicksand.
In an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin said he thought the For the People Act – which Democrats say is needed to secure free and fair elections and protect against GOP-led efforts to restrict voting at the state level, often disproportionately affecting voters of color – was too partisan.
“The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics. Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner,” Manchin wrote.
Manchin also defended the filibuster and said he would “not vote to weaken or eliminate” the Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most legislation to pass, all but guaranteeing that any legislation opposed by even a small number of Senate Republicans will fail.
“Some in my party have argued that now is the time to discard such bipartisan voting reforms and embrace election reforms and policies solely supported by one party. Respectfully, I do not agree,” Manchin wrote. “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act.”
Manchin’s op-ed is consistent with his past statements, but it comes as Biden has intensified his rhetoric against Republican-led efforts to restrict voter access at the state level, calling it “un-American” and “an assault on democracy.” It also serves as a warning to his Democratic colleagues that Manchin will not bend despite the increased pressure the West Virginian has faced in recent weeks to drop his demands for bipartisan deals at a time when few seem possible.
In a speech last week to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, Biden made clear that June should be “a month of action” for Congress, declaring he would “fight like heck with every tool at my disposal” to get the For the People Act passed. He also announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would be overseeing the White House’s voting rights efforts.
Without naming them outright in his speech, Biden also effectively blamed two Democratic senators – Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – for holding up progress on his agenda in general.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why didn’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,” Biden said then, although it is not true that Manchin and Sinema vote more with Republicans.
The White House declined to comment on Manchin’s op-ed on Sunday.
On CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Manchin defended himself against charges that he was blocking Biden’s agenda.
“We’re looking every way we can to bring this country together and unite the country. That’s what I’m doing,” Manchin said. “And I think anybody, whether it be a Democrat or Republican, that’s sitting today in the Senate knows who I am. And I’ve always been about bipartisanship.”
However, the timing of the op-ed – just before Congress reconvenes Monday after a week-long recess to take a series of votes on Biden’s domestic agenda – also blunts hope of progress on other legislation. For weeks, the White House has been mired in negotiations with Republicans on Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plan, with talks that both sides have politely described as “healthy” and “constructive” but that have ultimately yielded no compromises. Democrats have struck a more urgent tone, saying they want a “clear direction” on the infrastructure plan by Monday and that negotiations can’t go on “forever.”
Similarly, the prospects for enacting gun restrictions in response to mass shootings and overhauling the immigration system are dim as a result of Manchin’s demand for bipartisanship that seems unlikely to materialize.
Manchin’s stance does not bode well for Biden’s proposal to dramatically expand access to education and safety-net programs for families, including two years of tuition-free community college; prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds; and paid family and medical leave for American workers.
In anticipation of Republican opposition, Democrats have discussed using a process known as reconciliation, which allows legislation that directly affects taxes and spending to pass on a majority vote, for the infrastructure and safety-net proposals. But although Manchin supported this approach to enact a coronavirus relief bill with no Republican votes earlier this year, he has said he does not want to pursue the same strategy on other legislation.
Manchin once again voicing his pointed opposition to eliminating the filibuster on Sunday dashes some Democrats’ hopes of pushing through their agenda even without Republican support.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who was an aide to former Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was the timing of Manchin’s op-ed that was more surprising to him than its substance, which was not new.
“It really, really deals a severe blow to what’s left of the president’s domestic agenda,” Manley said. “Unless I’m missing something, most of the Biden legislative agenda is going to die a quick, painful death in the Senate, because there are not the good 10 Senate Republicans that Sen. Manchin keeps on hoping for.”
Senate Democrats had planned to use the coming weeks to build support for their voting bill, on which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to hold a vote in the last week of June. Republicans are expected to successfully filibuster the bill, with no GOP senators supporting the measure at this point.
Manchin’s op-ed would allow Republicans to argue that, regardless of a filibuster, the legislation doesn’t have enough Democratic votes to pass the Senate, highlighting a point of intense tension within the Democratic Party.
“Can’t very well blame GOP intransigence/outmoded process if you can’t produce a majority,” former GOP operative Liam Donovan tweeted.
Manchin’s op-ed drew sharp criticism from some of his fellow Democrats in Congress, who have been growing increasingly frustrated over Manchin’s singular ability to stymie his party’s legislative efforts.
At the heart of their frustration is that Manchin is not asking for policy concessions but that legislation must have bipartisan backing to garner his support. Many Democrats view the idea that there are bipartisan deals to be struck on major parts of the Biden agenda as hopelessly naive, and that anger bubbled over on Sunday.
“Manchin’s op-ed might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow,’ ” Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., tweeted.
“We didn’t need an op-ed to know you’re unwilling to protect our democracy,” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., tweeted.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said his office had reached out to Manchin’s several times to discuss how they could move forward but had not heard back.
“Sen. Manchin isn’t interested in engaging in a conversation on the filibuster,” Bowman said. “He’s interested in serving a corporate agenda.”
Some Democratic aides have said Manchin is not the only problem facing the Biden agenda, but because he is the most vocal, he draws the most attention. He also represents a state that overwhelmingly supported former president Donald Trump, so there is little political cost for him in publicly opposing Democratic priorities. Other Democrats who oppose getting rid of the filibuster or specific bills often remain quiet while Manchin remains in the eye of the storm.
Manchin wrote Sunday, as he has said in the past, that he would instead support an overhaul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which “would update the formula states and localities must use to ensure proposed voting laws do not restrict the rights of any particular group or population.” However, even though Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has said she would join Manchin in supporting that alternative, other Republicans have said they would not, making it unlikely it would pass without doing away with the filibuster.
The For the People Act would improve voter access and revamp rules on campaign finance and ethics. It would require states to provide at least 15 consecutive days of early voting and keep polls open at least 10 hours a day. Democrats have implored their colleagues in Congress to pass the federal bill as GOP-led state legislatures and Republican governors have enacted or tried to enact voting restrictions across the country.
In March, Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a restrictive voting bill that curtails the use of drop boxes and imposes new ID requirements for mail voting. The state faced immediate blowback from Democrats and civil rights groups, as well as economic consequences as corporations spoke out against the bill.
Last week, House Democrats staged a walkout in the Texas Capitol to prevent the Republican majority from passing a restrictive voting bill. The next day, several of the state’s Democratic lawmakers said it was imperative that Congress pass the For the People Act.
“This is a now-or-never moment in American democracy,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. “If we don’t act now, then our democracy is not going to look the same either in 2022 or 2024.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, said he had not spoken to Manchin but defended his colleague somewhat by saying parts of the For the People Act could be modified.
“There are clearly some things I think need to be negotiated, and I think Joe Manchin realizes that,” King said. “But the guts of it … is voting rights. … That’s becoming more urgent by the day, based upon what’s going on around in the states.”
King said he was most concerned about portions of state-level voting restrictions being proposed that could allow a legislature to overturn the results of an election in a state. And he signaled he would be open to doing away with the filibuster when it came to an issue as critical as voting rights.
“If it comes down to voting rights and the rights of Americans to go to the polls and select their leaders versus the filibuster, I’ll choose democracy,” King said.