Politics: Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin

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  Mondaire Jones Says Manchin Op-Ed Might as Well Be Titled 'Why I'll Vote to Preserve Jim Crow' The West Virginia Democratic senator has come under fire for refusing to support the For the People Act following an op-ed he wrote for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.In the Sunday op-ed, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia said he was against the legislation because it had not garnered any Republican support. He felt a resolution for changes in voting rights should be reached with agreement from both parties.

Senate Democrats have been left confused and befuddled by Sen. Joe Manchin, and say they're trying to figure out what their West Virginia colleague is thinking with his most recent moves in bucking his party.

Joe Manchin wearing a suit and tie: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to reporters as he arrives for a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 8 © Greg Nash Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to reporters as he arrives for a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 8

Especially perplexing to Democratic senators is Manchin's opposition to a sweeping election reform bill intended to protect voting rights. He supported what was largely the same legislation, and served as a co-sponsor to the bill, introduced in the previous Congress by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and former Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

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"If you can figure out what Joe Manchin is about, let me know because I can't," said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment frankly on his colleague. "I'm mystified."

The main sponsors of the bill say it has only been changed in minor ways, and mostly to address concerns raised by state election officials in both parties and to make it more palatable to Republicans.

As a result, they're surprised at the opposition from Manchin, who represents a state easily won by former President Trump and is known for breaking with his party on some high-profile issues.

"There's always room for more [changes] so we're waiting to see what he wants to see in a bill," said Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who helped craft the legislation.

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  Manchin's staunch opposition to ending filibuster may imperil Biden's agenda, including infrastructure Manchin dashed hopes on the left that recent events might compel him to reconsider his support for keeping the Senate's 60-vote rule to pass bills.The moderate Democrat, in a Sunday op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, not only revealed his opposition to the Democratic-backed For the People Act but reiterated he won't vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.

Klobuchar said the Democratic authors of the bill "listened to the secretaries of state and listened to the West Virginia secretary of state on some of the concerns for West Virginia."

Klobuchar said she will continue to work with Manchin though she's not entirely sure how else he wants to change a bill that he supported in 2019.

In a Sunday op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that set Democratic politics on fire, Manchin said he opposed the bill because it doesn't have any Republican support.

That rationale left many Democrats at a loss for how to respond, and fearful for what it means for other big agenda items.

"You can't solve for that in Mitch McConnell's Senate," complained a Democratic senator. The senator said if Manchin's vote is based purely on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) ability to keep his caucus unified in opposing key Democratic priorities, then it becomes very difficult to negotiate with the West Virginian.

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Merkley, the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, said the changes to the bill since Manchin last supported it have been minimal and were done with the consultation of constitutional experts and state election officials.

"The bill is essentially the same bill, it's essentially the same bill as it was introduced," he said, adding there were "minor tweaks here and there based on input from legal [experts]."

"In committee we put together a manager's amendment that responded to a lot of input from Republican and Democratic secretaries of state and election clerks about making it more feasible in terms of timelines or complexity and then the Republicans blocked us from actually making those changes in committee," he said, referring to the evenly divided 9-9 Rules Committee where a tie vote prevents an amendment from being adopted.

Other Democratic senators couldn't explain Manchin's substantive opposition.

"You're asking me questions you should probably ask Joe Manchin," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a leading proponent of Senate bipartisanship who supports the election reform bill.

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  Joe Manchin's U.S. Chamber of Commerce sure loves Joe Manchin. Is that why his op-ed on voting bill echoed their talking points? Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) heads to a vote in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on June 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. The spotlight on Sen. Manchin grew even brighter after declaring that he will vote against the Democrats voting rights bill, the For the People Act, in his op-ed that was published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail over the weekend.

Manchin's voting rights litmus test has heightened concerns about where he will be when Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) attempts to pass much of Biden's infrastructure agenda under the budget reconciliation process, which will allow it to bypass a GOP filibuster if all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats stick together.

Manchin supports the bipartisan negotiations on infrastructure, which - if they produce a deal - would result in an investment package only a fraction the size of what Biden has proposed. It's also far from clear there will be any deal on the issue with the GOP after Biden ended talks with one key Republican senator on Tuesday in favor of a bipartisan group.

Senate Democrats held a caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon where they discussed their strategy for infrastructure legislation as well as how to revive the For the People Act, which appears to be dead without Manchin's support.

But Manchin didn't attend the meeting. Instead, he was spotted leaving the Capitol building about 1:30 p.m., when the meeting was taking place in the Hart Senate Office Building. His spokesperson said the senator "had a conflicting meeting."

Democratic senators say they want to speak directly to Manchin to figure out exactly where he's coming from, even though his op-ed published Sunday offered a detailed explanation of his position on the election reform bill.

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In the same essay he pledged he would not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster, which spells the doom of many Democratic legislative priorities given McConnell's track record of unifying his conference against Democratic bills.

"I want to talk to him personally on it and make sure I understand completely," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said Manchin supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which has yet to be introduced in this Congress but offers another avenue for negotiation.

Asked how Manchin's stance on filibuster reform would change Democratic strategy, Durbin said, "I don't know."

"That's one of the reasons I want to talk to him face-to-face, so I understand what he's willing to say or do," he said. "There are a dozen different ways to deal with the filibuster. And I don't know if he's dismissed all of them or would entertain some of them.

"I will only know that if I sit down with him," he added.

In March, Manchin signaled his willingness to support a change in Senate rules that would make it tougher for the minority party to block legislation by requiring them to actively hold the floor to continue a filibuster.

"If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk, I'm willing to look at any way we can," Manchin said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But Manchin later walked back that statement by saying he didn't want to change the 60-vote procedural hurdle to advancing to a final up-or-down vote, a hurdle Republicans will use to bottle up much of Biden's agenda.

Senate Democrats at their Tuesday caucus meeting raised concerns that a new effort by a group of Democratic and Republican moderates, including Manchin, to negotiate a scaled-down infrastructure package could doom the chances of passing a reconciliation package later in the year.

They reason that if the most bipartisan elements of Biden's infrastructure agenda are passed separately, then a reconciliation package may not get Manchin's vote later this year and fall short of the 50 votes it needs to pass.

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C'mon, Joe Manchin! There is no such thing as a voting rights bill that Republicans will support Mitch McConnell, Joe Manchin and John Thune Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images

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