As his voting rights proposal stalls, will Joe Manchin's dreams of bipartisanship ever come true?

·Senior Writer
·5 min read

Sen. Joe Manchin’s latest attempt at bipartisanship — a compromise on voting rights legislation — has again received a cold shoulder from the Republicans he’s attempting to win over.

This week, the West Virginia Democrat circulated a three-page memo outlining his proposal for a bill that would eliminate partisan gerrymandering and increase early voting but would also require voter ID, a favorite provision of the GOP. Manchin wrote last month that he felt that “partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy.”

Manchin has repeatedly touted the importance of bipartisanship, whether it’s tied to COVID-19 relief, infrastructure, voting rights or a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He’s refused to support the abolition of the legislative filibuster, which would allow bills to pass with just 50 votes in the Senate. (Manchin is not the only Democrat who opposes the filibuster’s removal, but he and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema take most of the fire from frustrated party members.)

Committee chairman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) listens during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on Capitol Hill June 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Manchin is in a unique position as a Democrat representing a state where Republicans won presidential and Senate races by 40 points in 2020.

However, evidence continues to mount that the bipartisan cooperation he's seeking just isn’t there.

Republicans have praised Manchin for his position on the filibuster, with Kansas GOP Sen. Roger Marshall going so far as to say he’d mow his colleague’s lawn if he doesn’t budge on the issue. But through their actions and statements, Republicans continue to tell Manchin they have little interest in crossing the aisle.

Last month, Manchin said he wouldn’t remove the filibuster in order to advance a commission to investigate the violence of Jan. 6, telling reporters, "I think we'll come together. You have to have faith there's 10 good people.” But only six Republicans voted for the bill, which meant it couldn’t advance further toward becoming law. After the vote, Manchin released a statement in which he said there was "no excuse" for any Republicans to vote against the commission, adding that they continued to "live in fear."

Republicans refused to offer a single vote in favor of the American Rescue Plan, a pandemic relief package that was supported by more than 70 percent of Americans in some polls. As the process moved along, Manchin said he wanted to the bill to “be bipartisan. If they think we're going to throw all caution to the wind and just shove it down people's throats, that's not going to happen." Democrats ended up passing the bill with just 50 votes in the Senate — including Manchin's — using the process of budget reconciliation, a tactic they’re considering for President Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill as Manchin and others attempt to hammer out a bipartisan alternative.

Republican leaders in the Senate have been clear that their priority is blocking Biden’s agenda. Last month, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his focus was on “stopping” the White House. Last week the No. 3 Senate Republican, John Barrasso of Wyoming, said his goal was to make Biden a “one-half-term president” by taking control of Congress in the 2022 midterms. Meanwhile, polls have repeatedly shown that most Republicans believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, repeating the baseless claims made frequently by former President Donald Trump.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) listens to Republican senators speaks about their opposition to S. 1, the
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

A few Republicans have signed onto a smaller infrastructure plan, but Politico reported it was with the intention of frustrating the White House’s larger agenda. A number of Democratic senators have already said they will not support the bill due to its lack of provisions tied to fighting climate change.

In an attempt to prove that bipartisanship can still work, Manchin has put the work in behind the scenes to get Republicans on board. In audio leaked to the Intercept, he told donors Monday that they should attempt to sway Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who’s retiring at the end of his current term, to vote for the Jan. 6 commission because it would remove one of the biggest arguments against the filibuster.

“Roy Blunt is a great, just a good friend of mine, a great guy,” Manchin said. “Roy is retiring. If some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him, that’d be nice and it’d help our country. That would be very good to get him to change his vote.

“What I’m asking for, I need to go back, I need to find three more Republican, good Republican senators that will vote for the commission,” Manchin continued. “So at least we can tamp down where people say, ‘Well, Republicans won’t even do the simple lift, common sense of basically voting to do a commission that was truly bipartisan.’ It just really emboldens the far left saying, ‘I told you, how’s that bipartisan working for you now, Joe?’”

The courting of Blunt has yet to prove fruitful. On Thursday morning, Manchin’s voting rights plan got the endorsement of Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat and voting rights activist who has become a favorite target of right-wing politicians and media outlets. Republicans were quick to use Abrams’s support of the plan to portray it as radical.

Stacey Abrams speaks to the media about the U.S. Senate runoff elections outside St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 5, 2021. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)
Stacey Abrams. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

“I think when Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed Sen. Manchin’s proposal, it immediately became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute,” Blunt said Thursday.

McConnell echoed that assessment. "In reality, the plan endorsed by Stacey Abrams is no compromise," he said.

A number of GOP-controlled states across the country have pushed laws that reduce voting hours and make it more difficult to vote by mail, among other restrictions. A report last week warned that some state legislatures are also looking to make it easier to change election results.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is among the many Democrats skeptical that Manchin will be able to reach a bipartisan deal on substantive voter protections, noting that GOP state legislatures tend to pass their voting bills along party lines.

“The idea that this can have some kind of bipartisan solution befuddles me, because every action taken in the legislatures is done just with Republican state senators, Republican assembly members, with no Democratic participation or input,” Schumer said Wednesday.

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