Manchin and Sinema Now Face the Weight of History

Democrats are racing to revive their voting-rights bill.

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema
Tasos Katopodis / Reuters; Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call / Getty

The battle over access to the ballot is entering a precarious new stage. Democrats and civil-rights groups are pursuing a two-track strategy to preserve their embattled hopes of passing federal legislation establishing a nationwide floor of voting rights. What happens next will likely determine whether Congress can act at all.

Advocates are betting that a combination of what might be called inside proof and outside pressure will yield their best chance of persuading the last Democratic holdouts to restrict use of the filibuster that Republicans employed on Tuesday to block consideration of the Democrats’ sweeping voting-rights and political-reform legislation.

The inside proof is a sustained effort to demonstrate to those reluctant Democrats, particularly Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, that no federal voting-rights bill can attract the 10 Republicans currently required to break a filibuster. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a lead sponsor of the legislation that Republicans filibustered Tuesday, told me that Democrats intend to quickly negotiate a new, slimmed-down bill based on the compromise principles Manchin offered last week—and to task him and Sinema with assessing whether any, much less 10, Republicans will sign on.

Democratic advocates want to bookend these intra-Capitol maneuvers with outside mobilization. An alliance of some 70 progressive groups supporting federal voting-rights legislation earlier this month announced plans for more than 115 upcoming events in 32 states. Some of the organizations have unveiled plans for substantial media buys promoting federal action. “The goal is to have a strong showing for the importance of democracy this summer,” Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of democracy policy at the liberal advocacy group Indivisible told reporters in a conference call this week.

It’s far from guaranteed that any of this will propel a federal voting-rights bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. As I wrote earlier this year, Democrats have no realistic chance of passing federal legislation to counter the wave of restrictive voting bills that Republicans are advancing in the states unless they agree to eliminate or reform the filibuster. And despite some mixed signals from Manchin, he and Sinema this year have primarily affirmed their resistance to changing the filibuster, she most recently in a combative Washington Post op-ed this week.

Yet advocates of federal action, both inside Congress and in the field, say it’s premature to declare the legislative effort irrevocably doomed, as many in the media already have. One senior White House official, echoing the dominant view among the advocacy groups, told me this week (in Churchillian language) that they viewed Tuesday’s vote as “not the end, but merely the end of the beginning.”

The reason for that measured optimism is that Democrats believe the only way the party’s last holdouts will ever agree to reform the filibuster is if Republicans repeatedly deploy it to block key Democratic priorities, particularly on voting rights. From that perspective, the GOP filibuster Tuesday was not only an inevitable, but also an indispensable, step toward reformation. The only surprise was a positive one: that Manchin joined all the other Democrats in voting to open debate on the legislation.

The emerging Democratic strategy to revive the legislation places Manchin, and to some extent Sinema, in a central position. Although the voting-rights principles Manchin issued contained some obvious red flags for Democrats—in particular a provision mandating that every state adopt a voter-identification system—his proposal incorporated more Democratic priorities than many expected, including making Election Day a national holiday, mandating that all states provide early voting and automatic voter registration, and establishing new rules to prevent partisan gerrymandering.

Merkley, both a lead sponsor of the sweeping voting-rights bill and the leading Democratic proponent of reforming the filibuster, told me that Manchin’s principles will provide “the starting point” or “foundation” of Democratic efforts to draft a new voting-rights bill. “The next step is we reach agreement on the details of a substitute amendment that Senator Manchin has been deeply involved in,” Merkley told me. Whatever Democrats finally agree on, Merkley says, will encompass the “four core principles” of the Democratic bill blocked this week: “the right to vote, end gerrymandering, stop billionaires from buying elections, and stop the corruption that extends from conflicts of interest.”

Merkley, perhaps optimistically, says he expects Democrats to finish that work as soon as next week and then ask Manchin and Sinema to take the lead in soliciting Republican support for it. The duo’s instinct that it is far better to have a bipartisan bill is “absolutely right,” Merkley says.

But Merkley, like the rest of the voting-rights coalition, believes there’s virtually no chance that 10 Senate Republicans will agree to any federal action on voting rights. If the outreach effort fails, Merkley says, then it’s up to the 50 Democrats to reform the filibuster to pass a floor of nationwide voting rights.

The goal in assigning Manchin and Sinema to find support among Republicans is to force them to personally confront the unwillingness of the GOP to engage on voting rights, even when Democrats have offered olive branches (such as the voter-identification requirement that many Democrats oppose). The risk is that Democrats could find themselves flailing in another bog of extended bipartisan negotiations, as they have been for weeks on infrastructure and police reform. Merkley, though, insists that Democrats will put a tight time frame on the process; Senate Democratic leadership aides I spoke with this week echoed his assertion.

Any Manchin-centered plan that Democrats release would not be the final word on voting-rights legislation. If Manchin can’t attract Republicans, provisions he included in his draft to win GOP support (such as the nationwide voter-identification requirement) are likely to be diluted or even removed, Democrats in both chambers tell me.

Any such further negotiation among Democrats, of course, would become relevant only if Republican rejection of a compromise voting plan persuades Manchin and the other recalcitrant Democrats to weaken the filibuster. There’s a general (if not universal) belief that if Manchin agrees to changes, Sinema and any other Democrats privately uneasy will not want to take the heat of holding out on their own. One Democratic senator I spoke with recently expressed that consensus view by saying that if Manchin moves, “in my heart of hearts I believe the others would come along.” Although Manchin, as one of the last Democrats standing in right-trending West Virginia, has little to fear from criticism by others in the party, the senator continued, “there are very few other people who are in that position either by temperament or politically, and therefore the fury that would be visited upon folks that were unwilling to change the rule is something that I think people would not want to endure.”

But the senator, who asked for anonymity to describe conversations with colleagues, added that “no one knows” what Manchin or Sinema are “willing to do,” if anything, to change the filibuster. “I guarantee you, Chuck [Schumer] doesn’t know,” the senator added. “They may not know.”

One point of intense debate in this delicate process is the role of Joe Biden. The White House issued a strong formal statement of support for the legislation that Republicans filibustered Tuesday, and Biden has used sharp language to denounce the wave of restrictive voting laws as “un-American” and a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy,” most pointedly in his speech on the anniversary of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre. But generally, he has done more to highlight his attempts to work with Senate Republicans (particularly on the physical infrastructure package, where he neared a long-sought agreement this week) than to paint them as obstructionists or a threat to small-d democracy.

Though Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden tapped to lead the administration’s voting-rights efforts, convened a meeting with about three dozen voting-rights groups to discuss next steps yesterday morning, neither she nor Biden were highly visible around Tuesday’s vote. The contrast was notable yesterday, when Biden devoted hours to meetings with local officials and then delivered a televised public pronouncement about his plans to combat rising crime rates in major cities.

White House aides say that Harris will continue to build support for voting rights among business leaders and other civic groups this summer. But the administration’s relatively restrained public posture has sharply divided voting-rights advocates. Many believe that louder alarms from the executive branch would raise public awareness of the voter restrictions proliferating in red states and create more pressure for Congress to countermand it. Others accept the White House argument that increasing Biden’s personal involvement would further polarize the issue along partisan lines in a way that actually makes it tougher to persuade Manchin, Sinema, and others to eventually change the filibuster on a purely party-line vote.

In any case, as one White House aide told me, although the administration plans to turn up the volume on voting rights in general, Biden, given his history in the Senate, won’t take the point position on reforming the filibuster. Building pressure for that, the aide said, will be the responsibility of the outside civil-rights and voting-rights groups.

All of those groups are promising robust efforts. Black Voters Matter and other voting groups have launched a “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” bus tour that has barnstormed across the South (and West Virginia) and is slated to conclude with a rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. The Poor People’s Campaign, led by the Reverend William Barber, also rallied in West Virginia and yesterday gathered for a protest outside the Supreme Court; the sign on yesterday’s lectern read Sen. Manchin: Stop the Filibuster. The End Citizens United Action Fund has partnered with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, on a media campaign that is expected to spend $30 million supporting the federal voting-rights legislation. “It has been an ongoing, steady drumbeat over months and months,” says the group’s president, Tiffany Muller. “I think you are going to see the outside groups double down and mobilize folks across the country.”

Neither of the key Democratic senators is particularly susceptible to conventional political pressure from liberal groups, Manchin because he is operating in a solidly Republican state and Sinema because she appears to have decided that complaints from her party’s left flank solidify her image in her closely divided state as a John McCain–style maverick willing to defy her own side. But that doesn’t mean more public mobilization around the voting-rights fight is irrelevant to the outcome. Optimists point out that Manchin’s private meetings with civil-rights advocates helped move him from his harshly negative op-ed on the Democrats voting-rights bill in early June to the surprisingly expansive principles he released last week.

Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, one of the lead sponsors of the House version of the voting-rights bill, says the real impact of greater public engagement would be to raise the stakes in the choices Democratic senators face in the coming weeks. “What the public pressure is doing is conveying the historical dimension of this,” Sarbanes argues. “I think, ultimately, that’s what is going to land this plane—that people like Senator Sinema, Senator Manchin, and others are going to feel the pull and push of history here. They are going to begin to put it in that context, and no member of the Democratic caucus is going to want to be on the wrong side of this historic opportunity to repair and restore our democracy at a moment of great challenge.”

In that context, Sarbanes notes, it’s worth remembering that most of the key civil-rights protections established during Reconstruction after the Civil War (particularly the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which attempted to ensure civil rights for the freed slaves, including the right to vote) passed on a party-line basis after congressional Democrats refused to constrain the violent racial backlash of their allies in the former Confederate states. “One party had to do it by themselves—the Lincoln Republicans,” he says. “But it was that important for the benefit of the country.”

In their insistence that federal voting-rights legislation proceed only with bipartisan support, Manchin and Sinema, by contrast, have effectively provided Senate Republicans a veto on whether Washington can counteract the offensive against voting rights that is proceeding, as I’ve written, on a virtually uniform party-line basis in red states. The two-tier inside and outside campaign now under way has only one goal: to convince Manchin and Sinema (and any other Democratic senators more quietly defending the filibuster) that their position is politically illogical and morally indefensible.

It remains entirely unclear whether those arguments, private pressure from Biden and their colleagues, the fear of a negative verdict in history, or anything else will sway the holdouts. What is clear is that if Democrats can’t pass a federal floor of voting rights before 2022, and lose control of one or both chambers of Congress then, the U.S. over the coming years will face a different two-tier reality: a widening divide between access to the ballot across the red and blue states. “If we don’t exercise the authority we have to protect democracy, how elections are conducted in a fair and free way,” Sarbanes says, “then Lord knows what it looks like on the other side of that.”