Manchin Vows to Block Democratic Voting Rights Bill and Preserve Filibuster

By Jonathan Weisman

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, appeared to slam the door on the far-reaching measure when he wrote that he would not vote for any partisan voting bill.

“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy,” Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia wrote.
“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy,” Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia wrote.Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times
Jonathan Weisman

WASHINGTON — Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia said on Sunday in no uncertain terms that he would not vote for the Democrats’ far-reaching bill to combat voter suppression, nor would he ever end the legislative filibuster, a written promise that imperils much of President Biden’s agenda.

The bill, which all the other Senate Democrats had supported and the party had portrayed as an urgent effort to preserve American democracy, would roll back dozens of laws being passed by Republican state legislatures to limit early and mail-in voting and empower partisan poll watchers. The measure, known as the For the People Act, would also restore many of the ethical controls on the presidency that Donald J. Trump shattered.

In The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the newspaper of the capital of his home state, Mr. Manchin, a Democrat, wrote: “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act. Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”

The 818-page bill would end partisan gerrymandering, tighten controls on campaign spending and ease voter registration. It would also force major-party candidates for president and vice president to release 10 years’ worth of personal and business tax returns and end the president’s and vice president’s exemption from conflict-of-interest rules, which allowed Mr. Trump to maintain businesses that profited off his presidency.

With Mr. Manchin’s vow, passage of the full For the People Act appears to be impossible, though parts of it could pass in other ways if Democrats are willing to break up the bill, a move that they have resisted. Mr. Manchin’s blockade of filibuster changes makes other Biden initiatives far less likely to pass, including any overhaul of immigration laws, a permanent expansion of the Affordable Care Act, controls of the price of prescription drugs and the most serious efforts to tackle climate change.

Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end debate and break a filibuster on policy legislation. Republican and Democratic Senates have chipped away at the filibuster, ensuring that most executive branch appointees and judicial nominees can be confirmed with a simple 51-vote majority. A budget rule, called reconciliation, has also been stretched to pass ambitious legislation under the guise of spending and taxation. Major tax cuts pressed by President George W. Bush and Mr. Trump were passed with simple majorities as budget bills, as were parts of the Affordable Care Act and a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill this year.

But bills that are purely policy oriented are still subject to a 60-vote majority in the Senate, and all 48 Democrats and both liberal-leaning independents would have to align to change that rule. Even if they did, all 50 would have to vote for the voting rights and ethics bill, considering that no Republican is expected to back it.

Mr. Manchin said instead that he would support passage of another bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore federal oversight over state-level voting law changes to protect minority groups that might be targeted. He cited one Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, as a supporter of the measure, which would give the Justice Department powers to police voting rights that the Supreme Court took away in 2013.

That decision freed nine states, mainly in the South, to change voting laws without pre-approval from Washington. After the 2020 election, many of those states — and several others — jumped at the chance, powered by the false claim that voting in November was rife with fraud.

But Mr. Manchin is still far short of the 60-vote threshold he backs to pass even that bill.

“I continue to engage with my Republican and Democratic colleagues about the value of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” he wrote, “and I am encouraged by the desire from both sides to transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.”

If Mr. Manchin believes killing the more expansive voting rights bill would make 10 Republicans more altruistic toward the more limited one, he has yet to show any movement on that front.

“There may be a path to 60, but it’s pretty difficult to see right now, on this day at this hour,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said on Sunday.

Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, praised Mr. Manchin, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we need to move forward on election reforms in a bipartisan way. I look forward to being a part of that.”

But he was noncommittal on what he would support.

“We’ll see what happens with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and other issues I think we can deal with, and deal with in a way that’s less partisan,” he said.

The House and Senate versions of the For the People Act were always something of a legislative Hail Mary. Democrats stitched together long-cherished goals such as advancing statehood for the District of Columbia; changes to redistricting laws in anticipation of a redrawing of House districts after the 2020 census; mandating early voting for 15 days before an election, 10 hours a day; and ending voter identification requirements.

Republicans labeled it a Democratic power grab, and even some members of the Congressional Black Caucus worried that its prohibition on partisan gerrymandering would end up costing Black representation in the South.

Still, Democrats greeted Mr. Manchin’s words incredulously. The senator has made similar points before, but doing so in writing in West Virginia carried new weight. His colleagues acknowledged the tenor of the conversation would change this week as the bill moves to a formal drafting process.

“His fidelity and allegiance to the people of West Virginia is beyond question,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “But I hope that he will recognize equally the responsibility that each of us has to the nation, and we face an unprecedented threat to voting rights and democracy.”

House liberals were more scathing. “Manchin’s op-ed might as well be titled ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow,’” Representative Mondaire Jones, Democrat of New York, wrote on Twitter.

The White House declined to comment.

Mr. Manchin’s opposition to ending the filibuster and backing strictly Democratic bills could have implications beyond voting rights. He supported the pandemic relief bill this year, which passed on party lines, but Democratic leaders are considering passing other measures under reconciliation, including an infrastructure bill that will most likely top $1 trillion.

Democrats privately expressed frustration with Mr. Manchin’s insistence that even stripped-down bills would need at least one Republican to get his support. Senators had been working on securing Mr. Manchin as a co-sponsor of the For the People Act, getting the bill to a symbolic 50 supporters, pleading with him to tell them what he could accept. But the senator has effectively given Republicans veto power, saying he does not oppose the substance of the legislation, only its lack of bipartisan support.

Mr. Manchin declined to say how he would vote on a party-line infrastructure bill, saying that a bipartisan group of senators negotiating a deal that could get at least 60 votes were “not that far apart.”

Amid months of false claims by former President Donald J. Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states are marching ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and changing how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

    • A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become a central issue in American politics. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning law and justice institute at New York University, counts 361 bills in 47 states that seek to tighten voting rules. At the same time, 843 bills have been introduced with provisions to improve access to voting.
    • The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
    • More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
    • Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would likely face steep legal challenges.
    • Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
    • Texas: The next big move could happen here, where Republicans in the legislature are brushing aside objections from corporate titans and moving on a vast election bill that would be among the most severe in the nation. It would impose new restrictions on early voting, ban drive-through voting, threaten election officials with harsher penalties and greatly empower partisan poll watchers.
    • Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. Iowa has also imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day. And bills to restrict voting have been moving through the Republican-led Legislature in Michigan.

“I still have all the confidence in the world,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’re going to get there. My goodness, the president has gone from $2.25 trillion down to $1 trillion. The Republicans have come up quite a bit from where they started.”

Mr. Manchin also laid out what he sees as the path to passing bipartisan legislation in the Senate. Seven Republican senators have voted either to convict Mr. Trump of inciting a mob attack on the Capitol or to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the riot. Mr. Manchin said that paring back Mr. Biden’s agenda would add to that group and clear the 60-vote threshold.

“We need to work within the framework of what we have,” Mr. Manchin said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We have to keep striving to make sure we can get to that 10.”

The senator has maintained for months that his opposition to ending the legislative filibuster was in keeping with the wishes of his deceased mentor, Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat whose decades-long Senate career was defined by his defense of the institution. In his opinion piece, Mr. Manchin reminded his fellow Democrats that Mr. Trump had urged Republicans to end the filibuster in 2017, and they did not.

“Yes, this process can be frustrating and slow,” Mr. Manchin wrote. “It will force compromises that are not always ideal. But consider the alternative. Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?”

But during the Trump presidency, the Republican majority often skirted filibuster rules. The party tried to repeal the entire Affordable Care Act using reconciliation, for instance, but they could not muster the 51 votes. They did pass a steep tax cut that lavished largess on corporations and top earners without a Democratic vote.

Mr. Manchin was most firm on the voting rights bill, saying that passing it on a party-line vote would further divide the country; state after state is passing voting restrictions along party lines where Republicans control the legislature and governor’s office.

“I think it’s the wrong piece of legislation to bring our country together,” Mr. Manchin said on Fox. “I don’t want to be in a country that’s divided any further than I’m in right now.”

“I’m not being naïve,” he continued, acknowledging that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, had vowed to block Mr. Biden’s agenda. “We’d be a lot better if we had participation, and we’re getting participation, but when it comes time to a final vote …” He trailed off.

He also suggested that Senate Democrats were partly responsible for the current dilemma on the filibuster in the Senate, noting that it was the majority leader at the time, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who first removed parts of the filibuster in 2013.

“What goes around comes around here; they all understand that,” Mr. Manchin said. “And there were 33 Democrats in 2017 that signed a letter to ‘please save the filibuster and save our democracy.’ That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Democrats pushed back on that suggestion, saying the erosion of support for the filibuster on their side stemmed from the abuse of the rule by Republicans. That was capped by a Republican filibuster late last month of the bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed by Senator Manchin’s position,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said in a statement.

Chris Cameron and Katie Rogers contributed reporting.