The Democratic Party’s push to protect future American elections from GOP suppression and subversion is once again largely in the hands of the moderate senator from West Virginia. For the second time this year, Republicans today unanimously blocked voting-rights legislation from coming up for debate in the Senate. Democrats have the ability to pass the legislation on their own, but only if Manchin—among others—will allow them to do so.
In the imagination of voting-rights advocates, today’s Senate vote should have occurred with thousands of demonstrators marching outside the Capitol, pressuring Republicans to step up and help preserve American democracy. President Joe Biden would be meeting with Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema in the Oval Office, verbally if not physically twisting their arms to persuade them to back a carve-out to the Senate’s filibuster to circumvent GOP obstruction. “The vote on whether we will have a republic is at 2:15 today,” tweeted Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics.
In reality, the vote was almost an afterthought, one more preordained failure in a legislative chamber that excels at doing nothing. A few minutes earlier, senators confirmed an assistant secretary of education; when the vote was over, they went back to making speeches. Biden and congressional Democrats have been working Manchin hard, but the lobbying blitz is aimed most urgently at securing his vote for the president’s economic agenda, not voting rights. The president, for his part, decamped to his native Scranton, Pennsylvania, to sell his Build Back Better plan. He promoted the trip this morning with an aw-shucks tweet accompanied by a photo of his younger self in a baseball uniform, telegraphing anything except the potential demise of democracy.
The truth is that the White House already has Manchin’s support for voting rights. That’s the big difference—really the only difference—between the action the Senate failed to take today and the action the Senate failed to take in June, when Republicans blocked the Democrats’ initial voting-rights proposal from coming up for debate. Manchin stuck with his party for that vote, but he warned that he would not support final passage of the bill, then known as the For the People Act, without major changes. So the Democrats agreed to major changes. In negotiations over the summer, they revised and pared down the measure to win Manchin’s backing. Gone are many of the original bill’s campaign-finance provisions, along with a requirement that states establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions. The new proposal, now called the Freedom to Vote Act, retains standards to combat new GOP state laws that restrict access to the ballot, and it includes new elements aimed at preventing Republican attempts to subvert elections after the polls close. This year alone, more than a dozen red states have passed laws that make voting harder.
Not only does Manchin support the Freedom to Vote Act—he’s a co-sponsor of the bill. But Democrats need more than his vote, or even his pride of authorship, to enact it into law. Manchin gives them 50 votes, but to win passage in the Senate, Democrats either need 10 Republicans to defeat a filibuster or need Manchin (and Sinema, and every other member of their party) to back a change in the rules to allow the voting-rights bill to advance with a simple majority. And that’s where the proud traditionalist from West Virginia has drawn the line. After toying earlier this year with possible changes that would weaken the filibuster, Manchin has redoubled his defense of the procedural tool as a protection of minority rights and an incentive for bipartisan consensus. (The filibuster’s critics say it has the opposite effects.)
Manchin told Democrats over the summer that he wanted time to reach out to Republicans to see if he could build support for the revised bill. Democrats agreed, but they really had no other choice. Getting Manchin to either win over Republicans or consent to ditching the filibuster is the party’s only hope of enacting legislation that its members say is vital to protect democracy. Democrats need other members of their party, most notably Sinema, on board as well, but without Manchin’s support the idea is dead. Democrats have virtually no leverage over Manchin, a red-state Democrat who wins election solely by persuading conservative voters to trust him. At any moment, he could throw the Senate back into GOP control by switching parties or vowing to back Mitch McConnell as majority leader. As if to remind Democrats of that uncomfortable fact, David Corn of Mother Jones reported barely an hour before today’s vote that Manchin has told associates that if Democrats don’t agree to his demands to cut the size of Biden’s budget bill, he will bolt the party and become an independent. The story did not mention the filibuster or voting rights specifically, but the message from Manchin or his allies is the same: Don’t push too hard.
What today’s vote made clear is that Manchin has persuaded exactly zero Republicans to back a bill that is now partially his own. Even Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the lone GOP senator open to a fresh update of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, was against debating the Freedom to Vote Act. What Democrats have to hope is that this failure will serve as a key lesson in the education of Joe Manchin, that he will now have seen for himself that there is no path for voting-rights legislation as long as the filibuster remains intact. But just as likely is that today’s vote will go down much less memorably, as one more step in the slow death of the Democrats’ yearlong push to protect the next national elections.
After Vice President Kamala Harris gaveled the vote closed, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared that his party’s fight was “far from over.” He said the Senate would soon call up a new voting-rights act named for the late Representative John Lewis—a bill that is likely to meet the same fate as the Freedom to Vote Act. Schumer invoked Senate history and the Civil War amendments that ended slavery to show how important he believed the cause to be. But he had no more news to announce, no next steps that would break the impasse on voting rights. The voluble Manchin had nothing to say, and when Schumer finished his brief speech, the Senate moved on to something else.