With his filibuster position, Manchin passes on a rare opportunity

In a 50-50 Senate in which bills pass by majority rule, Joe Manchin would almost certainly be the most powerful federal official in the nation's capital.
Image: Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin, Joe, D-W.Va., walks to the Senate chamber after a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on Jan 29, 2020.Steve Helber / AP

By most measures, the ambitions were a longshot. Progressive-minded Democrats envisioned the possibility of a "blue wave" in 2020 that would put the party in control of the White House and both congressional chambers, which in turn would open the door to sweeping national changes.

Under this scenario, Democrats could restore majority rule to the Senate. And expand the Supreme Court. And add new states. And pass vital legislation on everything from health care to voting rights to the climate crisis. The opportunity for a progressive step forward was real and exciting.

Except, there was no "blue wave," at least not this year. There's still a chance that Democrats could eke out a 50-50 split in the Senate, but even if they do, the conference's most conservative member is making clear that he intends to keep existing rules in place in the chamber, which effectively closes the door to sweeping reforms. Roll Call reported overnight:

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III wants to make clear that he will not be the 50th vote in favor of eliminating the legislative filibuster or expanding the size of the Supreme Court in a potential 50-50 Senate.

"I commit to you tonight, and I commit to all of your viewers and everyone else that's watching. I want to allay those fears, I want to rest those fears for you right now because when they talk about whether it be packing the courts, or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that," the conservative Democrat told Fox News, adding, "I will not vote to end the filibuster."

And so long as the legislative filibuster continues to exist, the door will remain closed to all kinds of legislative opportunities.

It's worth emphasizing that control of the Senate matters anyway. It's important who controls the Senate floor, which bills get voted on, and which party chairs Senate committees. What's more, whether the legislative filibuster exists or not, the outcome of Georgia's Senate runoff elections will have an enormous impact on judicial nominees, cabinet nominees, budget measures, and bills pursued through the budget reconciliation process.

In other words, no one should see Manchin's comments and assume that the chamber isn't worth fighting for. The difference between a Mitch McConnell-led Senate and Chuck Schumer-led Senate is the difference between day and night.

But there's another element to this that the West Virginian may want to consider. Manchin appears to have made up his mind, but the conservative Democrat should keep in mind that he's passing up the opportunity of a lifetime.

In a narrowly divided Senate, which requires 60-vote supermajorities for every meaningful piece of legislation, the focus will be on finding a sizable group of "centrists" who may try to craft bipartisan bills, which would ultimately wither on the vine, dying of neglect at the hands of Mitch McConnell.

But in a 50-50 Senate in which bills pass by majority rule -- the way the institution used to function for the better part of American history -- the single most powerful federal official in the nation's capital would be the most centrist member of the majority party.

Or put another way, in such a scenario, West Virginia's Joe Manchin would hold all the cards. Legislation he likes would pass; bills he opposes would fail. Nominees he approves of would be confirmed; those he's skeptical of would not. In nearly every instance, Senate votes would hinge on the whims of one man -- who could ask for anything he wanted, and get it, because his party would have no choice but to make every effort to make him happy.

Offered this opportunity, Manchin said yesterday that he prefers not to have the power, choosing instead of leave the dysfunctional status quo in place.