Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the Democrats' pivotal 50th vote in the Senate — the key to passing bills with a simple majority. (With the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.) He is also pivotal for changing the filibuster rule.
His vote is pursued as decisive for President Joe Biden's infrastructure proposals and for passing S. 1, the For the People Act, to protect the right to vote and repair the corrupting campaign finance system.
Manchin’s positions here go against a legacy the senator has long insisted he is committed to protecting.
So his party is forced to take notice when Manchin declares, as he did in a Washington Post opinion piece last week, "There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster." Manchin also challenges the use of reconciliation as not good for the future of the country, and he seeks a bipartisan solution to the democracy reforms in S. 1.
Yet Manchin's positions here go against a legacy he has long insisted he is committed to protecting.
When Manchin, then the governor of West Virginia, was first elected to the Senate in 2010, he took the seat of a historic figure, the late Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, longest-serving senator in U.S. history, who was known for his mastery of the Senate and its rules.
Manchin, in fact, has emphasized that he sees himself as "a person that's going to defend the legacy of Robert C. Byrd."
If we review Byrd's legacy, however, it is that clear Manchin is not doing that.
Byrd did not believe he was weakening the filibuster rule when he engineered successful revisions to it. He did not believe the reconciliation process was bad for the country when he played a key role in creating it. He fought hard for his campaign finance reform bill — and never believed that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his Republican colleagues were interested in reaching a bipartisan solution.
We can see Manchin's conflict with Byrd's legacy in three specific areas.
Byrd's record demonstrates that he recognized that the Senate's filibuster rule — requiring that two-thirds of senators present vote to end filibusters — was not sacrosanct. He supported changing the rule when it had been abused or when the times demanded it.
The master of Senate rules said on various occasions that this would require only a simple majority vote. Any time 51 senators are determined to change the rule, Byrd said during a 1975 Senate floor debate, "that rule will be changed."
Byrd twice played a leading role in revising the filibuster rule in the 1970s: first, cutting to 60 the number of votes needed to invoke cloture, which ends a filibuster, and second, ending post-cloture filibusters, which took place on bills after cloture had been invoked to end the filibusters. (In 1985, he tried a third time to change the rule from 60 votes to three-fifths of those present, but he was unsuccessful.)
Byrd obviously believed revising the filibuster rule when abuses or circumstances called for it was good for the country and for West Virginia, the state he represented and loved.
Byrd obviously believed that revising the filibuster rule when abuses or circumstances called for it was good for the country and for West Virginia.
During the debate on Byrd's second successful change of the rule, he again said this required only a simple majority. As Byrd explained, "certain rules that were necessary in the 19th century and in the early decades of this century must be changed to reflect changed circumstances."
Byrd also supported a number of exemptions to the filibuster rule. He played the crucial role in the 1974 creation of the budget reconciliation process — which Manchin criticized in his opinion piece — and which the Senate just used to pass the Covid 19 relief bill and could use again for the coming infrastructure package.
In fact, it turns out that Congress created 161 exemptions to the filibuster rule in statutes enacted from 1969 to 2014, according to one study.
Campaign finance reform
Byrd deeply believed that the campaign finance system in Washington was doing grave damage to the country and the Senate, the institution he revered.
In 1987 and 1988, Byrd, as majority leader, fought a hard battle to enact his bill to create a public financing system for Senate elections, similar to the successful presidential system created in 1974.
Byrd held a record eight cloture votes over nine months to break the Republican filibuster against his bill. The GOP was not interested in compromise, though. As Byrd said during debate, "the problem is that the distinguished senator from Kentucky [Mr. McConnell], and I say this with all due respect, insists that we can compromise if the compromise is on his terms."
Senate Republicans succeeded in killing Byrd's campaign finance reform bill — using the filibuster.
Byrd made it clear just how important he believed campaign finance reform was:
"The integrity of this institution is at stake. The integrity of the electoral and political process is at stake. The integrity of representative democracy is at stake."
Manchin and S. 1
S. 1 (the For the People Act), now pending in the Senate, includes a small-donor, public matching funds proposal similar to Byrd's reform legislation.
Like his predecessor, Manchin has expressed strong concerns about "the disturbing role money plays in our democracy." In fact, when Manchin was governor of West Virginia, he proposed and signed legislation to create a public financing system for state Supreme Court elections.
Manchin echoed Byrd when he recently endorsed campaign finance reform, saying, "More and more lawmakers spend their time dialing for dollars, instead of legislating for their constituents," and he explained, "That is why I have and will continually support changing our campaign finance rules."
However, on the day Manchin's op-ed called for bipartisan solutions on voting rights and campaign finance reform, The New York Times described McConnell — the country's longtime leading opponent of campaign finance reforms — as the "No. 1 foe" of S. 1 and noted that he "seems to enjoy the full support of his Republican colleagues."
Manchin has created a classic Catch-22 situation. He says he wants a bipartisan solution to voting rights and campaign finance legislation. Yet there is no basis to believe that any Republican senator, let alone the 10 needed to break a filibuster, will support a bipartisan solution to real campaign finance and voting rights reforms. Led by McConnell, the GOP wants to kill the reform bill — just as it killed Byrd's reform bill in 1988.
McConnell is a serial, record-setting abuser of the filibuster. He used it to block major parts of President Barack Obama's agenda, and he now appears headed down the same path with Biden's agenda. Yet McConnell had no problem being the last senator to orchestrate a big exemption to the filibuster rule — which was used to confirm three Supreme Court justices by majority votes.
If Manchin wants to honor Byrd's legacy, he should complete the legendary senator's mission for campaign finance reform and support revising the filibuster rule, greatly abused in recent years, to pass S. 1. Manchin also needs to adopt Byrd's clear-eyed understanding that Senate Republicans have no interest in compromising to create real campaign finance reform. So he needs to join the 49 co-sponsors of the For the People Act and support an exemption to the filibuster rule so S. 1, vital to repairing our democracy, can become law.
The alternative is to join with McConnell and the GOP as they use a filibuster to kill S. 1 — just as the GOP killed Byrd's campaign finance reform bill. This result would protect Republican efforts across the country to suppress voting, particularly by people of color, allow the corrupting campaign finance system to grow even worse and permit extreme partisan gerrymandering in many states.
Manchin's choice here is not about the interests of Republicans or Democrats in Congress. It is about the interests of the American people — in a fair and honest system of representative government.