Bill Clinton, Oprah and his fellow centrists: Democrats do everything they can to influence Manchin

Bill Clinton, Oprah and his fellow centrists: Democrats do everything they can to influence Manchin

Manchin has told colleagues his phone line has been lighting up with prominent names outside the Senate in recent days. He has heard from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and talk show legend Oprah Winfrey, plus former staffers of both Manchin and former Senator Robert Byrd (DW.Va.), according to a person familiar with the talks. Manchin’s office declined to comment on those calls.

But perhaps the most fruitful discussions take place behind closed doors, among the senators themselves. Kaine compared the effort to his 27-hour drive to Washington earlier this week after a snowstorm destroyed I-95: “Slow progress toward a goal, like my commute.”

Manchin is crystal clear that he does not want to change the 60-vote threshold required to approve most bills through a one-sided vote, which is currently the only option to demolish the filibuster. At the same time, he finds it hard to say no to his friends.

And that explains Manchin’s relatively open rhetoric in recent days about whether there are changes in the filibuster that could make the Senate work better. He has undergone modest adjustments, which many Democrats now see as the tiniest glimmer of hope that they could eventually succeed. But they’re not there yet – not even close.

“I cannot say that we have a solution, a resolution or a decision. But we’ll talk further. That’s the good news,” King said.

The talks between the four centrists represent the best chance Democrats have to influence Manchin in the coming days, as Senate leader Chuck Schumer seeks a vote on changes to Senate rules before Jan. 17. Playing hard on the outside world, Schumer has repeatedly put pressure on Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to pass a rule change that would allow a simple majority to push through the electoral reform.

Even then, the effort is long at best. Right now, Manchin and Sinema’s adoption of a weaker filibuster via the unilateral “nuclear option” would be one of the greatest reversals in modern political history.

Discussions with Sinema are taking place separately, and she has expressly indicated that she does not want to meet the requirement of a supermajority. Still, many Democrats believe that if Manchin approves something, the rest of the caucus will follow.

At the same time, Manchin and Sinema are part of a bipartisan group that began meeting this week to discuss electoral reform and other more modest electoral reforms. If, as expected, Manchin and Sinema reject a major rule change this month to implement sweeping electoral reform, it could leave those discussions as the best hope for any action on that front.

Nevertheless, people like Tester, whose home state is almost as conservative as Manchin’s, are advocating directly with Manchin to consider a filibuster change. Tester, Kaine and King all signed a letter in 2017 pledging to “keep existing rules” from the Senate, but all say the January 6 uprising and other events have changed their minds.

“Joe is a complex man. We are all complex people,” said Tester. “All three of us have been in a position where we didn’t want to change the filibuster. And I think if it wasn’t armed, I wouldn’t be talking about it now.”

In public, the talk of the filibuster is marketed specifically to Manchin. Democrats often refer to Byrd, whose seat Manchin now holds, and his eventual support for changes to Senate rules over the course of his career. And instead of talking about killing or stripping the filibuster, the Democrats are now portraying their push as an attempt to “restore” the Senate.

Manchin said several times this week that he does not support Democrats to change the rules themselves and prefers to work on all the changes in the aisle, just as he hoped to do in electoral reform. In an interview, Manchin said his Democratic friends don’t give him a hard time.

“It’s very informative. My goodness, we have a lot of historical background and learn how as a body we got to where we are today. How we’ve evolved and who we are and how we got here and the changes that have been made over time,” Manchin said. “They’re all my friends… they know where I stand.”

Perhaps most encouragingly for Democrats, Manchin hasn’t said no to hearing from them. It’s all part of Manchin’s long arc about electoral reform: he opposed the Democrats’ first draft last year, then worked with colleagues to write a draft he could support. He then spent months trying to recruit Republicans to sign electoral reform and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, eventually gaining the support of only GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for the latter.

Despite that brick wall of GOP opposition thus far, Manchin has effectively ruled out a change to party line rules, calling it a “heavy lift” this week. He also rejects making an exception to the filibuster specifically for elections and voting, saying this week, “Every time there’s a carveout, you eat the whole turkey.” Manchin has voted against the unilateral change to the Senate rules, by both the Democratic and Republican majority.

He has also gone on to defend the supermajority demand and doubt anything that would weaken it. The reforms he has introduced include abolishing a filibuster vote on even discussing bills and changing the 60 vote threshold to a three-fifths requirement, which would allow more minority members to stay in Washington. However, that would not create a clear path for electoral reform to reach the Senate.

But for the trio of Senate optimists, Manchin’s openness alone, a year after he vowed never to change the filibuster, is a kind of victory.

“He understands that there is an urgency to settle voting rights very quickly. So the question is: how are we going to achieve that?” said Kaine. “The question is: what is the preferred option? And we’re just not there.”

Marianne Levine contributed to this report.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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