It makes for an interesting situation when somebody is a crucial asset for achieving something, for making or breaking the future, and is at the same time a total nuisance. When somebody has a certain responsibility, but sits on a throne and demands fanning and grape feeding before servicing those who need him, it is hard to develop the most strategic approach to deal with that person. That somebody is Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and his romance with the filibuster is one of the most frustrating obstacles to legislative victories.
“Fanning and grape feeding” might be an exaggeration. But Manchin is somewhat of a blessing for those who seek democratic and liberal change. The very fact that he is a Democrat from West Virginia is a major reason for the necessity to preserve his seat (and possibly his good side), considering that the state has seen an overwhelming political shift to the far-right in the last two decades and has the second-highest proportion of voters who sided with Donald Trump in the 2020 election. On March 6, the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package in the wake of the present recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, passed in the Senate on a party-line vote. While the election of every Democratic senator is to thank for capturing the Senate majority with a tie breaking vote from Kamala Harris, the miraculous existence of a Democratic senator from West Virginia in 2020 is also crucial for democratic success.
As a Democrat representing the second-most Republican-leaning state based on the 2020 election results, Manchin’s politics are a conservative outlier. After all, he voted with Trump 50.9% of the time from 2017 to 2021. Thus, the least likely Democrat in the Senate arguably holds the greatest sway over legislation, so in this case, the 50-50 split in the Senate has put Manchin in the most powerful position possible for this chamber. He acts as a true pivot point between the two major parties during negotiations. Christopher Regan jokes in the Atlantic that his support is so vital to the Democratic Party that West Virginia will be “the home of a new federal spaceport.” Manchin has already displayed the power he holds during the COVID-19 relief negotiations in the Senate when he dramatically threatened to delay the Democratic effort if the Democrats did not lower the monthly unemployment benefits from $400. In the end, he compromised by agreeing to lower the benefits to $300, but this incident revealed the sway that this rare West Virginian Democrat holds over the entire Senate team. CNN’s Michael Smerconish believes that the way in which Manchin wields power and questions Democratic legislation represents an element of independent thought and approach that is lacking from today’s Senate. I can agree to view this quality in a positive light, but given the radicalization of the Republican Party, independent thought cannot override the solidarity of the Democratic party.
The even split means the Democrats cannot afford to lose a single senator on any major piece of legislation that can be won with a simple majority, which brings in one of this decade’s potentially most burning questions: how can America sway Joe Manchin to amend or abolish the filibuster? The filibuster is a senatorial process that permits timeless debate which can totally prevent proposed legislation from being passed. Ending the debate requires a cloture motion, or three-fifths of the Senate to vote in the affirmative, with the exception of presidential nominations. Texas Senator Ted Cruz reading Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” as part of his spiel against the Affordable Care Act was for that purpose: delay, delay, delay and ultimately block. The Senate was able to pass the American Rescue Plan Act through use of a procedure called “reconciliation,” which is applicable for certain budget legislation as a means of circumventing the 60-vote requirement in order to prevent a filibuster from occurring. In a highly polarized legislative branch such as ours, the filibuster will be abused by the Republicans to block many major pieces of legislation that are key priorities for Democrats. The Democratic majority can take steps to amend the filibuster, but to do that it needs the support of every single member of the caucus, and Manchin is the biggest obstacle to this effort.
While it should be understood that Manchin is an utter blessing for the party, and that his political positions were in the right spot to appease his constituency in 2020, I cannot seem to understand his ardent desire to keep the filibuster intact. Eliminating the filibuster entirely is virtually impossible unless a party swells to a membership that exceeds a supermajority, but amendments could potentially be a reality with Manchin’s support. For example, a united Democratic front can push for a lowered vote total necessary to invoke cloture, or certain time limits can prevent debates from being purposefully too long. His insistence to prevent the filibuster from even being amended is an enormous blow to efforts to solve so many issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible. If the filibuster is not amended, much needed climate change legislation could be blocked at almost every turn by Republicans. The For the People Act, which will prevent the overwhelmingly Republican-led state legislatures from strategically decreasing voter turnout in minority, Democrat-leaning communities, will never see the light of Joe Biden’s face as he signs it. Paths for citizenship for undocumented immigrants seeking safety and opportunity could face severe roadblocks. The filibuster is an enemy of the righteous mandate of the American majority, and unless its power is reduced, the script for the next four years could turn out to be all too familiar. Legislation will be blocked at every turn, anti-elitist and anti-government sentiment will build up and shake up Democratic primaries and the Republicans will overpower Democrats dramatically in both chambers of Congress in 2022. With that, further gridlock will lead to President Biden facing a serious populist challenger in 2024, and that person may be the very president who incited an insurrection merely two months ago.
So, whatever reason Manchin has for maintaining the filibuster exactly the way it is, which he hasn’t made very clear, is selfish or misguided. If he is doing it to appease his constituency and stay in power, he may improve his chances of staying on as an unlikely West Virginia Democrat, but he puts the future of this country at massive risk in regard to democratic institutions and climate change. If he defends the filibuster because he considers it a foundational part of the Senate’s framework, then he is wrong. It is not a foundational part of the political body, and even if it is… so? We have humanitarian crises to stop and looming disasters to prevent. Finally, if he’s doing it to appease Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and to prevent further division between the two parties, then he was probably in a coma for the past four years. The division exacerbated by Donald Trump is much greater than two political parties at stark odds, for it is now two universes of truth at stark odds, one in which a large chunk will not publicly admit that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. There is no chance of significant cooperation with a party that perpetuates that lie, pledges to derail Biden’s agenda and pretends to not know how to pronounce QAnon.
Democratic Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has also expressed opposition to changing filibuster rules, but the spotlight is on Manchin’s especially vehement opposition. The reason for this, and the reason for why I am so pessimistic about any prospects for amendments towards the filibuster, is, well…
“Never! Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about never?” Manchin complains to Fox News’ James Donner when asked about eliminating the filibuster.
Joe Manchin is essentially irreplaceable because of the deep-red state he represents. The senator may hold the rare congressional character of an independent thinker, something that is unfortunately lacking in the current political climate, but he is also stubborn and blind to the drastic implications of maintaining the outdated relic of the filibuster. What’s the alternative? Expand the leads in the House and Senate for Democrats. Oh, but that is a real longshot without the For the People Act. And for that we need… to get rid of the filibuster. Things may not be looking too bright, but if there is a secret method to steal Manchin’s, and if necessary, Sinema’s, heart, let the light shine on it.