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Manchin makes his case against his party's democracy reform package

Will Manchin reconsider when Republicans refuse to support any effort to bolster voting rights? A great deal is riding on the answer.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin on Jan. 19, 2021.Greg Nash / AP file

The top legislative priority for congressional Democrats is foundational: they hope to rescue the nation's democracy through the "For the People Act." While bill numbers are usually trivial, in this case, Democratic leaders made this legislation H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate for a reason.

As regular readers know, several of the provisions of the bill relate to overhauling lobbying, ethics, campaign finance, and transparency laws, but at the heart of the For the People Act is a series of reforms to protect and expand Americans' right to vote. To that end, the legislation would, on a national scale, expand early and absentee voting. And establish a system of automatic voter registration. And modernize voting systems. And restrict voter-roll purges. And require independent commissions to draw the lines for congressional districts, weakening gerrymandering. The list keeps going, with plenty of related provisions.

The trick, of course, is figuring out how to pass it.

Earlier this month, the Democratic-led House approved the bill, largely along party lines, though this was always seen as the easier part of the process. Eight days ago, Senate Democratic leaders followed suit, unveiling the same proposal in the upper chamber, and announcing that it enjoyed the support of 49 of the conference's 50 members -- everyone except Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

It wasn't long before the conversation started to shift: overcoming a Republican filibuster posed an enormous hurdle, but if the For the People Act had any chance at all, it would need at least 50 votes, not 49.

Would Manchin, who backed a similar reform bill in the last Congress, really balk at his party's desperate attempt to bolster the nation's democracy? For now, the answer appears to be yes. Politico reported a short while ago:

Activists are calling on Senate Democrats to kill the filibuster to enact once-in-a-generation voting rights legislation. But Joe Manchin wants his party to step away from the edge. In a lengthy statement on Thursday, Manchin urged fellow Democrats to take a bipartisan approach rather than try and jam through a massive reform package on party lines.

"Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government," the West Virginian wrote. He added that there are elements of the package that he supports, but concluded, "We can and we must reform our federal elections together – not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans to restore the faith and trust in our democracy."

Perhaps he's new here.

Manchin also apparently believes that his party is "overreaching" in the current version of the bill, and he envisions a dramatically scaled back alternative, focusing on mandatory early voting -- and little else.

By any fair measure, this is a difficult perspective to understand. The Republican Party and its allies are currently engaged in the most aggressive voter-suppression campaign in recent American history. The GOP at every level has rallied behind this as a singular cause. It is the party's "unifying mission" to make it harder for Americans to participate in their own democracy. The goal is to effectively poison the nation's political system.

Democrats have developed an antidote, which Manchin thinks has some merit, but which he's prepared to oppose unless Republicans -- the folks engaged in an anti-voting crusade -- support it, too.

It's a bit like local fire marshals seeking support from arsonists before implementing a plan to save people from fires.

The larger question, however, is what happens after GOP senators make clear to Manchin that they will not cooperate on voting rights. The West Virginian wrote, "We can and we must reform our federal elections together." OK, but when Republicans tell him they have no intention of reforming federal elections, or even working in good faith on the issue, Manchin will ... do what exactly?

It's worth emphasizing for context that Manchin also demanded bipartisan support for the recent COVID relief package, and when GOP lawmakers refused to engage, he grudgingly moved on without them. It's not inconceivable that could happen again on this and other issues.

Will Manchin reconsider his position when Republicans refuse to support any effort to bolster voting rights? A great deal is riding on the answer.