Growing fissures in Democratic ranks were evident on Monday over West Virginia US Senator Joe Manchin’s public opposition to the For the People Act, a sweeping measure to protect voting rights that are under assault from Republicans in numerous states – and also his stance against scrapping the filibuster.
The filibuster is the rule under which the Senate minority, currently the Republicans, has the power to thwart the majority’s will on most legislation.
Manchin is a centrist Democrat, but one progressive congressman called him “the new Mitch McConnell”, for helping the Republican Senate leader in his quest to stop progress on the Democrats’ agenda at all costs.
In a column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, Manchin said he opposed the For the People Act, or HR1, which currently has no Republican support in the Senate, because “partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy”.
He also reiterated his support of the filibuster, under which 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation. The Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties and controlled by Democrats only through Kamala Harris’s casting vote as vice-president.
Anger over Manchin’s stand was particularly fierce among African Americans, a key constituency in elections which gave Democrats control of the White House and Congress and subsequently a key target of Republican efforts to restrict ballot access in Florida, Georgia, Texas and elsewhere.
Mondaire Jones, a New York congressman, referred to the era of racial segregation in the US south when he said: “Manchin’s op-ed might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow.’”
The writer Jemele Hill elaborated: “This is so on brand for this country. Record number of black voters show up to save this democracy, only for white supremacy to be upheld by a cowardly, power-hungry white dude. Joe Manchin is a clown.”
Speaking to CNN on Monday, congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York called Manchin “the new Mitch McConnell”.
“Mitch McConnell during [Barack] Obama’s presidency said he would do everything in his power to stop Obama,” he said.
“He’s also repeated that now, during the Biden presidency, by saying he would do everything in his power to stop President Biden. And now Joe Manchin is doing everything in his power to stop democracy and stop our work for the people, that work that the people sent us here to do.”
Manchin has in fact voted with Biden most of the time so far, and has said he backs the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore ballot protections gutted by the US supreme court in 2013.
Asked if it was fair to attack Manchin so stringently, Bowman said: “HR1 has popularity in West Virginia and across the country. Well over 65% of the American people support HR1, and well over 50% of Republicans support HR1.
“The American people sent us to Washington to do a job. Just a few weeks ago, we had a bipartisan piece of legislation looking to form a commission to study the 6 January insurrection, the first attack on our Capitol since the War of 1812. It was a bipartisan piece of legislation, and it did not pass. Why? Because of the filibuster, and because the majority of Republicans are focused much more on obstruction.”
A study by the Center for American Progress found that Republicans have used filibusters roughly twice as often as Democrats to stop legislation.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader and New York Democrat, has said he will bring the For the People Act up for a vote this month. At the outset of a new legislative session on Monday, he appealed for Democrats to stick together.
“I want to be clear that the next few weeks will be hard and will test our resolve as a Congress and a conference,” Schumer wrote to colleagues, as reported by the Hill. “The American people gave us a Democratic Senate to produce big and bold action on the major issues confronting us. And that is what we will do.”
As the influential Punchbowl News put it on Monday morning, however: “Any legislative strategy that involves dumping the filibuster and then passing a bill is going to fail. That much is clear. If you don’t get that by now, we don’t know how to help you.”
Unlike his fellow centrist and filibuster supporter, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Manchin voted for the 6 January commission, which would have investigated an event which Donald Trump incited in service of his lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” and he won, not Joe Biden.
On Monday, Trump backed Manchin in his support for the filibuster, telling Fox Business: “It’s a very important thing. Otherwise you’re going to be packing the courts, you’re going to be doing all sorts of very bad things that were unthinkable.”
The former president’s words were not without attendant irony.
In July 2017, faced with the failure of attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump famously tweeted against the filibuster rule: “Republican Senate must get rid of 60 vote NOW! It is killing the R Party, allows 8 Dems to control country. 200 Bills sit in Senate. A JOKE!”
McConnell, then Senate majority leader, refused to budge. Now that he is the Senate minority leader, McConnell is still immovable.
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