Those of us who have followed the career of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., knew that, eventually, his sometimes reasonable and other times obstinate centrism would create a problem for the Biden administration.
It was only a question of when and what.
We got both last weekend when Manchin, in an op-ed published in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, said he would vote against the For the People Act, which seeks to guarantee voting rights, rid political campaigns of dark money and override efforts in some states to suppress voter eligibility and turnout.
I’ve been inundated with letters and op-eds from people across West Virginia — and the country — who are furious with Manchin’s reasoning.
It’s important to understand that Manchin is the last Democrat in West Virginia’s congressional delegation, and the state he represents gave Donald Trump nearly 70% of its votes in 2016 and 2020. The fantasy in some national news outlets that he could be defeated from the left is, for better or worse, laughable to anyone who has spent time in this state.
If Manchin hadn’t been reelected in 2018, the American Rescue Plan never would have passed. Although they now tout their support, every member of West Virginia’s congressional delegation other than Manchin voted against it. In a 50-50 Senate, Manchin’s crucial vote ensured hundreds of millions of dollars would go to West Virginia communities for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the state.
And yet, Manchin’s position on the For the People Act makes its possible defeat that much more agonizing. If Manchin weren’t in office, the bill would have no hope at all. It stings a lot more when a bill that would do so much good at a critical time has an actual chance of passing but still can’t get through.
As for the criticism aimed at Manchin I’ve received in op-eds and letters, along with what I’ve seen from columnists at news outlets large and small across the nation, I get it. As much as I respect him, I don’t think Manchin made a good argument for why he won’t support this bill.
The notion that he can’t vote for it because it doesn’t have any backing from Senate Republicans is so bizarre that it’s hard to take seriously.
First off, if it’s good legislation — and Manchin seems to think on some level it is — then you back it.
Second, it was a former Republican president who sold the lie of election fraud and turned his rabid followers loose on the U.S. Capitol. Some GOP congressional members still won’t divorce themselves from that lie. Building upon that falsehood, it’s the GOP that is enacting these voter suppression laws across the country. Expecting Republican senators to act in good faith at this point is beyond naive idealism; it’s willful self-delusion. Manchin is still somehow surprised when his olive branches across the aisle are met with the business end of a machete.
The bill does have bipartisan support from the people who matter the most — the voters. Polling shows a majority of Americans, and West Virginians, Democrat and Republican, support the bill. Manchin should know how frustrating this feels for them. He had broad backing from the voters when he and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., introduced a bill for expanded firearm background checks after the massacre at Sandy Hook. The people were with him, but Senate Republicans, aside from Toomey, were not.
Manchin’s other major problem with the For the People Act is that it would require an effort to eliminate or somehow amend the filibuster, because getting 60 votes in a split Senate would be impossible. Manchin continually refers to the filibuster as something the Founding Fathers designed. I don’t know if he genuinely believes this and is simply incorrect, is intentionally trying to mislead people or is referencing that the idea of the filibuster was first discussed in the country’s infancy.
Whatever the case, Manchin needs to be clearer here. The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It’s a quirk of Senate rules that was discussed as a theory around the late 1780s and only put into practice much later. That theory came from Aaron Burr, the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. You could make an argument that the Founders believed more in the formal practice of shooting one another over social grievances than in the filibuster.
It’s also not as sacred as Manchin makes it out to be. Filibuster rules have been tinkered with throughout U.S. history and, in more recent years, Senate Minority Leader and avowed fan of dark money Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has abused the filibuster to grind government to a halt.
Yes, elimination of the filibuster could lead to a sea change every time the majority shifts in the Senate. But the filibuster rules could be amended so that a smaller majority is needed to end one — it’s happened before. It’s true, the possible backfiring of any fiddling with the filibuster has to be considered.
You know what else has to be considered? The rights of American citizens to vote in elections where they aren’t unfairly purged from the rolls, unable to get to the polls or turned away because of draconian state election rules enacted so a Republican presidential candidate will never lose Georgia again.
Manchin grasps the gravity of the situation and, deep down, he knows what’s right. His legacy, and the fate of the country, might hinge on him being able to admit that, in this instance, his initial conclusion was wrong.