Sen. Joe Manchin’s notable opposition to Democrats’ expansive voting legislation highlights the perils of a closely divided 50-50 Senate: Any one objector in the Democratic Party can spell doom for top agenda items regardless of whether the filibuster remains in place.
An ideologically diverse Democratic caucus is exacerbating the limited power of the party’s narrow Senate majority with the push to reform voter access and elections as the most recent test case. The “For the People Act” faces no path in the Senate because it wouldn’t be able to overcome a legislative filibuster lodged by Republicans. But even if Democrats had the support to end the stall tactic – which they currently don’t – the bill still couldn’t move forward without support from all 50 Democrats.
Manchin, who’s the only Senate Democrat not to sign on as a co-sponsor, publicly announced his objections to the bill in a Sunday op-ed that reverberated throughout the political world – and also ended hope for a unified front on an issue that Democrats believe could have imminent consequences for them in next year’s elections. On top of that, all Senate Republicans are vehemently opposed to any federal framework to overhaul U.S. elections.
The legislation has been a key priority since Democrats won back the House in 2018 and grew more significant once President Joe Biden took office. But the effort became even more urgent for Democrats in the wake of GOP-led states trying to pass dozens of bills that’d place restrictions on voters, like limits to early and absentee voting, reductions in ballot drop box access and voter purges from early-voting lists. GOP governors in battleground states like Florida, Georgia and Arizona signed these types of bills into law with more on the horizon.
The For the People Act is wide-ranging with measures on voter access, campaign finance and ethics. The bill would institute automatic and same-day voter registration and limit removing voters from voter rolls. And as states start gearing up for redistricting following the new census numbers, it would also create independent redistricting commissions to draw new lines. The other election bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis, would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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Manchin, who has repeatedly and vigorously opposed gutting the filibuster, reaffirmed his opposition to doing so, including in the scenario to advance federal voting legislation. He specifically explained that he can’t vote for a bill that’ll reform the way the country votes if it only has support from one party, though he supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. He noted that particular bill has bipartisan support, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only GOP co-sponsor in the last session of Congress.
“Congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials,” Manchin wrote in his op-ed in The Charleston Gazette-Mail. “The truth, I would argue, is that voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen.”
Democrats will now need to see if they can resurrect their efforts or find some sort of compromise to at least achieve party unity. But other than a commitment to vote on the massive elections legislation in a few weeks, it’s not immediately clear how the Senate will proceed on winning over objectors.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York vowed again on Monday to put the “For the People Act” on the floor for a vote at the end of the month. And he’s pledged to schedule votes on other House-passed bills that never came to the Senate during the last session when Republicans still controlled the upper chamber.
A laundry list of priorities is starting to pile up during a jam-packed June and summer. Infrastructure and policing reforms as well as other House-passed bills like the Equality Act and background check bills for gun purchases are also waiting in the wings.
But if bipartisan deals don’t materialize over the next few weeks, especially on an infrastructure package, Manchin and other moderates will be key votes that determine whether Democrats can go it alone and pass Biden’s plan through a special budgetary process called reconciliation. Manchin has previously signaled he wants the party to focus on cutting a bipartisan compromise instead of again relying on reconciliation, which allows Democrats to advance a bill by a simple majority instead of 60 votes.
“The Senate returns to session with a busy and consequential work period ahead of it. We will consider landmark legislation to establish paycheck fairness, legislation to boost American innovation in the 21st century and legislation to protect voting rights and American democracy the final week of June,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
Democrats are operating on a tight timeline to pass as much of their agenda as possible. They’re only guaranteed a trifecta – control of the House, the Senate and the White House – through the end of next year when they’ll be battling to hang onto their majorities in Congress during the 2022 midterm election. Democrats hold narrow majorities and are at risk of losing one or both chambers in a non-presidential cycle that historically favors the party out of power.
Manchin, however, isn’t the only Democrat standing in the way of some of the party’s top priorities or the sole reason the legislative filibuster remains intact. But he’s generally the public face of internal divisions – and the one who takes the most heat as the vocal critic in the party.
Other moderate Democrats remain hesitant to changing the rules of the Senate and gutting the delay tactic used by the minority party. With the rules in place, the Senate, in most cases, must get to 60 votes to break up a filibuster and advance a bill.
In recent days, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona reiterated her objections to eliminating the filibuster. She has called siding with either the filibuster or Democrats’ agenda a “false choice” and contends that fixing the paralysis of the Senate is achieved by behavioral changes and not a procedural rules change.
But some Democrats, like Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, have signaled their willingness to lower the threshold for advancing bills from 60 to 51 votes specifically for the federal voting bill.
In a divided 50-50 Senate narrowly controlled by Democrats, the party must keep all of its senators unified and sway at least 10 Republicans to move a bill forward – a challenging feat in an extremely polarized body, especially when it comes to the meat of Democrats’ platform. Plus, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has publicly stated he plans to block all of Biden’s agenda, meaning he’d frequently wield the filibuster.
McConnell called Democrats’ priorities “a June agenda that is transparently designed to fail,” pointing out the reality that Democrats don’t have the votes to pass most of the bills imminently coming before the Senate.
“Bizarrely, it appears they are being floated in order to illustrate that the bar is too high,” McConnell said on Monday. “Democrats’ poster child for why the Senate should change its rule is a bill that would forcibly change the rules for elections in every state in America. Their marquee bill, S. 1, is such a brazen political power grab that the question isn’t whether it could earn bipartisan support. The question is how wide the bipartisan opposition will be.”
The path forward on federal voting legislation currently looks uncertain at best.
In light of Manchin’s op-ed, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed Biden’s support for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, though she added that Biden doesn’t believe the latter should be a replacement for the For the People Act. Psaki said the White House will remain in “lockstep with Democratic leadership” on where the legislation goes
At the executive level, Biden recently announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will handle voting rights both in the federal government and in the states – though voting rights activists are signaling that action by Congress is still needed and vital for the 2022 midterms.
When specifically asked if Biden views Manchin as an obstacle to his agenda, the White House rejected that characterization and said he remains in contact with the West Virginia senator on key areas where there’s common ground.
“We’re certainly not ready to accept that analysis,” Psaki told reporters Monday. “The president considers Sen. Manchin a friend. He knows that they may disagree on some issues as they do on this particular piece of legislation. He’s going to continue to work with him, reach out to him, engage with him directly and through his staff on how we can work together moving forward.”
But at the end of the day, Manchin – and other moderate holdouts like him – hold the keys to Democrats’ legislative success from voting rights to infrastructure.