While it was discouraging when Sen. Joe Manchin derailed the For the People Act, the conservative Democrat at least did so in a constructive way. The West Virginian effectively argued that the ambitious democracy-reform package was too ambitious and too partisan to advance, but he could craft a compromise bill that would address many of the same issues.
What's more, Manchin said, he believed his alternative legislation would address conservative concerns and garner Republican support. NBC News quoted the senator saying over the summer:
"...I've been working across the aisle with all the Republicans trying to get people to understand that that's the bedrock of our democracy — an accessible, fair, and basically secured voting," he told reporters.
Manchin added three weeks ago, "We're negotiating with Republicans in good faith and we'll see what happens."
Yesterday, we saw what happened: When Senate Democrats tried to begin a debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, which Manchin helped write, zero GOP senators agreed to let the chamber discuss and amend the critically important legislation. Literally, not one Senate Republican was willing to break ranks on the compromise measure designed to address an indefensible voter-suppression campaign.
It was an important development for any number of reasons. Will the Democratic majority find a way to overcome GOP obstructionism and protect our democracy? Might this be the issue that forces senators to take a fresh look at filibuster abuses?
The authors of the Freedom to Vote Act invested months of work into the bill, well aware of the legislative arithmetic. Would they spend all of this time and energy on an important bill that was doomed from the outset, or is there a legislative strategy to protect the franchise?
While we wait to see if any of these questions have satisfying answers, there's a related issue for one senator in particular to consider in more detail.
Manchin is an enthusiastic proponent of a governing model. Like it or not, the conservative Democrat believes the best way — in many instances, the only way — for Congress to approve worthwhile legislation is to embrace a cooperative, bipartisan approach.
Indeed, the Freedom to Vote Act offered the latest in a series of classic case studies that tested the merits of Manchin's model — offering the West Virginian an opportunity to prove that his legislative method is an effective legislative method. There were concessions. There was a compromise. There was sincere bipartisan outreach. There were offers, listening sessions, and a slow, deliberate process.
We don't need to change the Senate's filibuster rules, Manchin has said, we simply need well-intentioned officials to sit down, talk, listen, and reach responsible agreements.
And in the end, not even one Senate Republican was willing to vote to even have a debate on the bill.
If this sounds familiar, it's because this wasn't the first time. The same thing happened on the measure to create an independent Jan. 6 commission. And immigration. And policing reforms. And a Covid-relief package. And now voting rights.
Or put another way, Manchin's model is predicated on the idea that GOP senators are members of a governing party, which will work in a serious way on policymaking. What Republicans keep telling Manchin is that they're not who he thinks they are.
Now that the GOP has discredited Manchin's preferred model, what is he prepared to replace it with?