Manchin Refuses to Yield

The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics. Least of all, protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner. — Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, June 6, 2021, Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Senator, you are absolutely, positively, 100 percent right. We must protect democracy by protecting the vote, which should never be a partisan issue.

But, here is the rub, senator: Republicans in states they control are undermining the right to vote and empowering state legislatures to overturn election results. They are passing these measures in a partisan manner. Unless there is federal legislation to protect the right to vote, Democratic-leaning constituencies in Red States may be disenfranchised, and Republican state legislatures may gain the power to overturn election results they do not like. Senator, you are faced with a conflict between your wish to protect American democracy and your desire for Congress to act in a bipartisan manner. Unfortunately, you cannot have both. So, senator, which do you value more: The right to vote or bipartisanship?

The answer should be obvious, even to Senator Manchin. 

But, in case it is not obvious, I would point to President Abraham Lincoln’s dilemma when confronted by the military need to execute a deserter while wishing to preserve civil liberties in the midst of the Civil War. “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts,” Lincoln asked, rhetorically, “while I must not touch a hair of a wiley [sic] agitator who induces him to desert?”

We all wish that Congress could be transported back to the 1960s when Republican votes helped pass important civil rights legislation and Medicare, or we wish it were the 1980s and Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill were cutting deals. But, it is not. It is 2021, and Republicans are committed to the Big Lie about the November 2020 presidential election and to obstructing virtually every item on President Joe Biden’s agenda. The era of bipartisanship is long over.

Manchin represents a conservative state. As a Democrat, he is an outlier in West Virginia. But, he is a Democrat who refuses to recognize reality. He frequently points to negotiations between Biden and the other West Virginia senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, as proof that a bipartisan deal on infrastructure can be reached. Capito may be negotiating in good faith, but do not be surprised if in the end, no matter the contours of a deal, Republicans vote no on an infrastructure agreement. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, blocking Biden’s agenda is his party’s goal. It is a goal Manchin is furthering. 

There is a precedent for Republicans stringing Democrats along with no intention of actually cooperating. Recently, House Republicans made numerous demands of Democrats on the makeup of a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, only in the end to vote overwhelmingly against a compromise measure that conceded all the Republican requests.

I suppose an optimist might conclude that Manchin left the door open — in a television appearance on Fox News Sunday — to supporting parts of the For the People Act. “I think there are a lot of great things I agree [with] in that piece of legislation,” Manchin told Chris Wallace. It is possible that splitting up the bill into its components, and then introducing the parts Manchin does not like in a separate measure, might secure passage of at least some of the original bill. But, there are two problems with that approach. First, the parts of the voting rights bill Manchin does like would have to pass through budget reconciliation because there is zero chance of securing the support of the 10 Republicans necessary to overcome a filibuster. And the rest of the measure, lacking Manchin’s support, would not even get to 50 votes, making a filibuster unnecessary. In any event, Manchin, Sunday, reiterated his opposition to scrapping or amending the filibuster. 

There are precedents for splitting major pieces of legislation — so-called omnibus bills — into component parts. Perhaps, the most famous example of this was the mis-labeled Compromise of 1850, which was no compromise at all, but a series of laws passed by shifting congressional majorities aimed at disposing of the huge tract of land — would it be slave or free?— wrested from Mexico by war. California was admitted as a free state by the votes of northerners — both Whig and Democratic — and a few southern Whig votes; the onerous Fugitive Slave Law was enacted with the support of the South and a handful of Democratic Northerners. The same thing happened to other parts of the original bill. No one agreed to all of the “compromise.”

Still, 1850 provides an imperfect precedent because the dysfunction of that decade was sectional — slave states vs. free states — while the dysfunction of today is the product of two political parties unified against each other. In 1850, it was possible to cross party lines to provide essentially sectional votes for each part of the compromise. That is not possible with two evenly divided political parties where one is dedicated to obstruction. 

Manchin professes optimism about the chances for bipartisanship and denies he is blocking Biden’s agenda. “We’re looking every way we can to bring this country together and unite the country. That’s what I’m doing,” Manchin said on CBS Sunday. “And I think anybody, whether it be a Democrat or Republican, that’s sitting today in the Senate knows who I am. And I’ve always been about bipartisanship.” But, even he is getting frustrated at times by Republican obstruction. After Republicans squelched the January 6 commission, Manchin said he was “very disappointed” and “very frustrated that politics has trumped — literally and figuratively — the good of the country.” He called Republican votes against the commission “unconscionable.”

As long as Manchin continues to support the filibuster — which is simply a Senate rule enacted in error — he likely will be “frustrated.” As for the rest of the Democratic Party, it likely will be furious at the senator from West Virginia for his willingness to abet and enable Republican obstruction. Manchin earns their opprobrium because his opposition to the voting rights bill will allow Republicans in state houses they control free rein to roll back universal suffrage and because his stubborn adherence to the principle of the filibuster will result in partisan gridlock.

It is probably way too late, but Senator Manchin, please reconsider.

Posted June 8, 2021

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