Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) made waves earlier this Thursday when he released a statement to the press outlining his position regarding the Democratic bill overhauling the electoral process at the federal level, the famous (or infamous) H.R 1 “For The People Act’. Manchin, who has already broken with his party in many issues, said that passing this type of legislation in “a partisan basis” would only diminish public trust towards the U.S. government even if it brings some short-term partisan benefits.
Democrats and Republicans have been fighting from intransigent positions on the proposed electoral bill. With Republicans arguing that the bill is nothing more than a “power grab” from the Democratic Party aimed at centralizing the electoral process and putting it into the hands of the Federal governments, as Sen. Mitch McConnell tweeted two weeks ago, with even moderate Republicans like Romney publicly opposing the bill.
Democrats, on the flipside, have argued that the passing of the controversial bill would expand voting rights and fight against voter suppression across the country, a point illustrated by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) when she defended the proposition in her Senate Committee by arguing that the attempts at “voter suppression” by the Republican Party have shaken the American democratic system, which is why HR 1 should pass.
The bill is proving to be so controversial and polarizing that even Senators Klobuchar and Roy Blunt (R-MO), who have earned a reputation at having a productive bipartisan working relationship, have found absolutely no common ground on the issue, as reported by Politico, with both senators following the party line on the issue.
The bill has a plethora of measures aimed at profoundly changing the way elections are held in the United States by greatly expanding voter registration and access laws across the country, requiring each state to set up “independent” commissions in charge of drawing the congressional maps, establishing a new system to fund federal elections campaigns, creating a National Commision to protect Democratic Institutions, among other proposals.
Since there is a 50-50 Senate and neither side is looking forwards to compromise on the issue, the Democrats know that Republicans will gladly use the Filibuster to prevent this bill to ever getting to a vote in the Senate floor, which is why many Democratic activists are pushing their party to move forwards and nix the filibuster for good, leaving the door open for a 50-50 approval with VP Harris casting the tiebreaker vote.
Joe Manchin against the world
Joe Manchin, who has managed to flex his political muscles already, has decided to follow a unique route in this very divisive debate. In his statement he follows the rhetoric coming from the Democrats by agreeing that something must be done to “protect voting rights” and “making our campaign finance system more transparent”, while also giving in to some of the Republican concerns about voter integrity by implementing “commonsense electoral security reform”.
In his statement, the maverick Senator toed a similar rhetoric as the Democrats by defending the expansion of early voting, ensuring that communities that have been “traditionally disenfranchised and underrepresented” have their voices heard, and going hard against the growing influence of money in campaigning and politics in general.
However, he has also acknowledged many of the concerns heard on the Republican side, by saying that he understands the importance of allowing local decision-makers to have the flexibility to ensure elections security and voter accessibility, which follows the GOP narrative that H.R 1 would have the consequence of centralizing the electoral process in the hands of D.C.
Manchin is betting (or at least he says he is) that common sense and bipartisanship would prevail, allowing both sides of the aisle to calmly and rationally discuss the possible solutions to the issue of voting rights/integrity. The current political atmosphere both in Congress and the country, however, is hostile to the old-fashioned compromise espoused by the westvirginian.
However, he does not say this only out of a profound moderate conviction, but also as a way to remain politically relevant in his state. West Virginia is, according to the Cook Political Report, 19 points more Republican than the rest of the nation, which is why it is vital for Manchin’s own political survival to appear as an independent voice capable to stand up against Biden’s more progressive measures.
That is why Manchin has doen the impossible to show he is not a traditional Democrat: He was fudamental at sinking Neera Tanden’s nomination, he has vehemntly opposed eliminating the Filibuster, he was against the $15 minimum wage increase, and is now one of th few dissenting voices within the Democratic party on the “for the people” act debate.
In fact, he is the only Democrat who has not cosponsored the bill in the Senate, indicating his initial reluctance at supporting the bill as it stands right now. Even Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) who has showed her independent streak by defending the filibuster and voting against the minimum wage increase, has cosponsored the bill, illustrating how fringe is Manchin’s position within his own congressional caucus.
Although his opinion might not be shared by an overwhelming majority of his party, Democrats do not have the luxury to simply ignore Manchin. The 50-50 Senate makes his vote crucial if they want to have anything at all achieved during their two years of unified government in Washington D.C., meaning that if Manchin does not like something, Democrats will not get it.
Democrats do not even have the power to isolate Manchin and force him to toe the party line, since his power base is mostly independent from the direct influence of Pelosi or Biden. They cannot threaten him with a more progressive primary challenger in his state as doing that would only weaken their possibilities of keeping a Senate seat in a deeply red state. In fact, such a challenge would probably only help him at establishing his independent image to the West Virginian voters.
The Democratic establishment can pressure Manchin all they want, but that will not prove to be a threat big enough to threaten his political viability, and Manchin knows it.
The “For the People Act” cannot go through the same parliamentary procedure as the COVID relief bill, it needs either the tacit endorsement of 10 Republican Senators or the complete elimination of the filibuster. As of today, Sen. Manchin has dealt a blow to the Democrats hopes at unilaterally reforming the electoral system, however, in politics nothing is set on stone and only a proper vote on the floor of the Senate will let us know if this bill would ever become a law.