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POLITICS: Manchin and Sinema could scuttle another major Democrat effort, this time on the filibuster and elections


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Democrats are barreling toward yet another self-imposed deadline to pass major legislation that could be scuttled by moderate Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. – this time, it is about election bills party leaders argue are necessary to counteract new laws passed by Republican states. 

President Biden is expected to lead the push for election legislation in a Tuesday speech in Georgia, which passed one of the most controversial state election laws of 2021.

President Joe Biden holds a meeting on infrastructure with labor and business leaders at the White House July 22, 2021.
(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

“He is going to Georgia because Georgia is one of the many states where corrupt acts on the constitutional right to vote and the integrity of elections have taken place at based on the big lie,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week. The “big lie,” comment was a reference to former President Donald Trump’s false claims the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

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Manchin and Sinema are expected to support some form of legislation striking at what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Friday are GOP-backed state laws to “suppress the vote.” But the centrist senators are staunch supporters of the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for the chamber to proceed on most bills.

With Republicans almost unanimously aligned against congressional Democrats’ proposals, it is highly unlikely the Senate will be able to pass a bill by Schumer’s deadline to get something done by next week. The majority leader promised this month he would force a vote on potentially altering the filibuster if the GOP blockade holds. 

Sen. Joe Manchin walks past reporters after attending a Democratic caucus meeting Dec. 16, 2021.

Sen. Joe Manchin walks past reporters after attending a Democratic caucus meeting Dec. 16, 2021.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“If Republicans continue to hijack the rules of the chamber to prevent us from protecting our democracy, then the Senate will debate and consider changes to the rules on or before Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” Schumer said.

Schumer said the change would be “to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections.”

The White House said Biden supports this potential change to the filibuster as well. 

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“If necessary … he supports a rules change to uphold the sacred right of the Americans to vote,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “He served in the Senate, as you’ve heard us say, for over three decades.… He wants the Senate to be restored so that it can … do its work for the American people, including protecting the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Jan. 4, 2022.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Jan. 4, 2022.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Schumer has not detailed explicitly what “changes to the Senate rules” he would propose. But it is widely expected to be a limited carveout in the filibuster for election legislation. A full change to the Senate rules would require 67 votes, which would not pass with GOP opposition. 

Schumer could also try to use what is called the “nuclear option” to instead set a new precedent lowering the filibuster threshold for elections bills to 51 votes. This can be done with a simple majority. Democrats used the nuclear option on some presidential nominees during the Obama administration, and Republicans did the same for Supreme Court nominees under the Trump administration. 

Many Senate Democrats say that is the best approach, but Manchin and Sinema said repeatedly over several months they are opposed to that. The move will fail in the 50-50 Senate without their support. 

A lobbying effort targeting the moderate duo is now underway and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said on MSNBC Sunday he is hopeful they might change their minds. 

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“Sens. Manchin and Sinema were willing to make adjustments to the Senate rules to enable us to cover the nation’s debt,” Kaine told MSNBC. “My argument would be voting is just as important.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington on Oct. 19, 2021.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington on Oct. 19, 2021.
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They haven’t taken off the table openness to rules reforms that would be good for the Senate and that could enable us to accomplish our goal,” Kaine also said. 

But the one-time exception to the filibuster for the debt ceiling last month was possible only because enough Republicans backed the carveout at the request of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Republicans are not expected to be so accommodating when it comes to elections.

“The American people are not buying the nonsensical talk of ‘Jim Crow 2.0’ or a voting rights crisis,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week. “It’s not a ‘voting rights’ bill. It is a sprawling, sweeping takeover of our democracy.”

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McConnell added: “These changes wouldn’t bolster faith in our democracy or our institutions. It would do the opposite. It would be a civic wrecking ball. And that’s before you consider that Senate Democrats want to destroy our own institution to ram this through.”

This appears to close almost all paths Democrats have to pass election legislation this month. But if the status quo remains unchanged, it is possible that the president could get more involved in leaning on Manchin and Sinema – despite the fact he was unable to get them to come around on his economic agenda in December.

“So, now let us step up, write the next chapter in American history where Jan. 6 marks not the end of democracy, but the beginning of a renaissance of liberty and fair play,” Biden said in a speech last week. “I did not seek this fight brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it either.”



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