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The Democrats in the United States Senate will take up a procedural vote later today to debate of a handful of measures to overhaul the country’s voting laws. All eyes are on Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, who has offered his own voting proposal in addition to maintaining his opinion of never getting rid of the filibuster. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a conservative, will get equal attention.
What can we expect? For one thing, expect the Republicans to remain united against all things Democratic. Manchin & Co. enjoy make-believing the GOP cares enough about policy to bargain. They don’t, though. The GOP’s No. 3 in the Senate, John Barrasso of Wyoming, made that clear when he said that, “Mitch McConnell’s come under a lot of criticism for saying, at one point, he wanted to make sure that Barack Obama was a one-term president. I want to make Joe Biden a one-half-term president. I want to do that by making sure they no longer have House, Senate, White House.”
Democratic leaders are today running the same play that Democratic leaders played in 2013 when the Republicans abused the filibuster so much the Senate could not confirm any of Barack Obama’s judicial nominees. And it took months.
For another, expect Manchin & Co. to vote yes, but only because today’s vote will be for or against debating the measures, not voting for or against the measures themselves. What will be the outcome? Some say that’s it. With a legislative filibuster intact, requiring 60 votes for passage of anything, that will be the end game. Manchin & Co. will breathe a sigh of relief and move on. But I don’t think it will be that simple. Manchin himself proposed voting reforms. The White House is behind him. And Democratic voters, according to a new poll, are losing their patience in a hurry.
Before I continue, allow me to remind you the Democrats are the big tent party. They represent a vastly broader cross-section of America than the Republicans do. Whatever the Democrats in the Senate decide to do in response to state efforts to disenfranchise voters, it will be, in a very real sense, bipartisan in all but name. Importantly, the big tent cuts both ways. There may be “bipartisan” support for overhauling the country’s voting laws. Then again, there may be “bipartisan” opposition to the very same thing.
I doubt there’s opposition, though. I still think Manchin and Sinema (and probably eight other Democratic senators slow-walking democracy reforms) want to change the filibuster in order to make the president the most consequential president of the last half century. They just don’t know how to do it quite yet without appearing nakedly partisan. Again, the big tent. It is desirable, which is not the same thing as good, to avoid looking nakedly partisan to a broad cross-section of the American people. If they are going to act, they must be forced to. That seems to be the point of today’s vote.
What no one participating in the discourse seems to remember is we’ve been here before. In 2013, the Republicans abused the filibuster so much the Democrats, who at the time controlled the Senate, could not confirm any of Barack Obama’s nominees to the federal bench. It was total gridlock. Conservative Democrats then did not want to change the rules for judicial nominees for reasons similar to conservative Democrats now. But eventually, Harry Reid, who was then the Senate majority leader, teed up a series of votes to show reluctant Democrats the time had come to reform the filibuster.
That play took shape “over the course of months,” according to the Post. During that time, Reid brought up some nominees repeatedly to show conservative Democrats who feared appearing nakedly partisan that it was OK to appear nakedly partisan, because their Republican colleagues were beyond reach. In due course, the Democrats changed the rules so that judicial appointments could be finalized by a majority. It doesn’t take much to see the current Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, seems to be running the same play. He’s proving to Manchin & Co. the Republicans are again beyond reach.
It’s going to take time. Meanwhile, there are competing priorities. If I’m right, Biden would rather get infrastructure done next. The president seems ready to split the effort—doing one bill for “traditional” infrastructure like roads and bridges with some GOP support and doing another later for so-called human capital with no GOP support by way of reconciliation, which requires a simple majority. It would seem wise for the Democrats to invest trillions in America’s people and places long before next year’s congressional election. Democracy reforms should come beforehand, too, but they can be saved for after Chuck Schumer has given Manchin & Co. the room they need.
In closing, I think it’s important to remember Manchin & Co. are telling stories about the Republicans that the Republicans themselves are exploding in real time. This from Jonathan Bernstein strikes me as just right. “While it might not matter whether Manchin and Sinema believe the reasons they give for supporting the filibuster, it could nevertheless matter if events [which is to say, the Republicans] keep undercutting the stories they tell—because it might make them look foolish. In other words: One of the ways that Manchin and Sinema might get fed up is if the Republicans keep them from getting things they want; another way is if the Republicans make it increasingly difficult for them to justify not getting fed up.”
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article was originally published at The Editorial Board.