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Littwin: If Democrats want voting reform, give Joe Manchin what he wants and make him deliver

If Manchin can’t deliver 10 Senate Republicans — the ones he insists are out there somewhere — to overcome a filibuster, he’s got to come up with a new argument.

Here’s what Democrats should do about Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from the deep-red state of West Virginia, who seems determined to allow Republicans to scuttle nearly every piece of Joe Biden’s ambitious program.

They should give Manchin what he wants. All that’s at stake is American democracy and the gathering storm that threatens it.

I don’t mean Biden and Schumer and Pelosi and team should cave in to him. I mean they should give him what he wants, after some tough negotiation, and then allow him to road-test his theories on 21st-century governance, which haven’t worked since at least the last century. 

Mike Littwin

Or maybe Manchin thinks Biden’s prediction of an epiphany moment for post-Trump Republicans is still in play? First, of course, Republicans would have had to abandon Trump. If you had 2021 in the post-Trump-era pool, I don’t like your chances. Or Biden’s, for that matter, as he continues to negotiate with Republicans on the infrastructure bill.

We know the situation. The Senate is divided 50-50. Democrats have control because Vice President Kamala Harris is the Senate tiebreaker. But since nearly everything can be filibustered these days — the filibuster, in the Mitch McConnell era, serves no other purpose than to thwart the majority — you need 60 votes to pass anything, and Manchin has made two things clear:

One, he won’t vote for anything that isn’t bipartisan, which, in Washington-speak, means one lonely vote from the opposition. 

Two, he won’t kill the filibuster because to do so, he said, would “destroy the government.” You need to know nothing more about Manchin to realize that debating him on the topic is a losing proposition. He has his own special logic, which, let’s just say, is not exactly Aristotelian. 

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In Republican-led states across the country, they’re passing laws making it harder to vote, targeting what they hope to be minority/Democratic voters. Democrats have two urgently needed bills to address this. 

One is the so-called For the People Act, which offers wide-ranging solutions for the many things wrong with our electoral system. For instance, the bill would make it easier to vote — more early voting, more mail-in voting, same-day registration, fewer purges from the voter rolls. It attacks congressional-district gerrymandering. It takes on dark money. It changes election financing rules. It does a lot, and there are a few Democrats besides Manchin who think it might be trying to do too much. On the other hand, John Hickenlooper, your basic Democratic moderate, is playing his banjo in support of the bill. It’s not quite as risky as when he jumped out of the airplane in support of Ref. C, but it’s close.

When Manchin wrote his recent op-ed in the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail — who says newspapers don’t matter anymore? — he made his views on the need for bipartisanship and his support for the filibuster all too clear. He made it so clear that Democrats, who thought Manchin might still change his mind, were entirely disabused of that notion.

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But what Manchi didn’t say about the For the People Act, other than he would vote against it because there is no Republican support, is what parts of the bill he supports or opposes.

Democrats should negotiate with Manchin, get a bill that he can support with Republican help and then offer it up to the Republicans. I think we all know what will happen. But if Manchin is right, and there are 10 good Republicans, he can prove it. If he can’t, I don’t think Aristotle could help him.

The other bill is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is meant to restore those parts of the original, monumental 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court overturned in 2013, saying Southern states no longer required oversight because, you know, racial discrimination is a thing of the past.

The new bill would show the need is still there for preclearance by the Justice Department of laws that could be said to discriminate. Manchin supports the bill because it’s bipartisan (Lisa Murkowski is the lone announced Republican supporter). What Manchin wants to do is make the preclearance requirement apply to any of the 50 states. It’s not clear that the bill would pass muster in this Supreme Court. And it’s even less clear that Manchin could get 10 Republicans to break the filibuster. 

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In a Fox News interview, Chris Wallace asked Manchin if he weren’t being naive to think he could win over Republicans. Wallace reminded Manchin that Mitch McConnell — remember him? — has been saying that his goal is to block 100% of the Biden agenda, which doesn’t leave all that much room for compromise. And Wallace offered this: Why take a filibuster off the table when the threat might be the best tool to get Republicans to actually be somewhat bipartisan? Wallace said, “you’re doing it exactly the wrong way.”

That didn’t faze Manchin either. “I’m not being naive,” he told Wallace. “I’m going to continue to keep working with my bipartisan friends and hopefully we can get more of them.” In another interview, he said his “Republican friends” understand the dysfunction of the Senate and that, “this is not something they desire or wish.”

So, give Manchin his chance. He says partisan voter reform would only deepen the divide. Let him see if he can find 10 votes from 10 good Republicans. (Democrats could get only six in the failed effort to put together a bipartisan commission on the Jan. 6 insurrection.) Let him show us that he’s not naive and that bipartisanship in these hyperpartisan times, when Trump’s bogus rigged-election madness still dominates the Republican Party, is indeed possible.

If it’s not there, if Manchin can’t find votes to get these bills passed, if, without the bills, there’s no stopping the hyperpartisan votes in Republican-controlled state legislatures, then what?

I don’t know what Manchin’s answer would be to that question. But one thing is sure, it couldn’t possibly be the answer he’s giving now.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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