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What is Joe Manchin doing now?

Democratic Party pressure to protect future US elections from GOP oppression and subversion is again largely in the hands of the moderate senator from West Virginia. For the second time this year, Republicans unanimously blocked voting rights legislation from debating in the Senate today. Democrats have the option to pass the legislation themselves, but only if Manchin — among others — allows them to.

In the imagination of suffrage advocates, today’s Senate vote should have taken place with thousands of protesters marching outside the Capitol, pressuring Republicans to step up and help preserve American democracy. President Joe Biden would meet with Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema in the Oval Office, where he verbally if not physically, would turn their arms to them to get a carve-out for the filibuster of Senate support for GOP avoid obstruction. “The vote on whether we get a republic is today at 2:15 p.m..” tweeted Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics.

In reality, the vote was almost an afterthought, another predestined failure in a legislative chamber that excels at doing nothing. Minutes earlier, senators confirmed a deputy secretary of education; when the vote was over, they went back to making speeches. Biden and Congressional Democrats have worked hard for Manchin, but the lobbying blitz is most urgently aimed at securing his vote for the president’s economic agenda, not voting rights. The president, for his part, left for his native Scranton, Pennsylvania, to sell his Build Back Better plan. He promoted the trip this morning with an aw-shucks tweet accompanied by a photo of his younger self in a baseball uniform, telegraphing everything but the possible downfall of democracy.

The truth is that the White House already has Manchin’s support for voting rights. That’s the big difference – actually the only difference – between the action that the Senate has not taken today and the action that the Senate failed in June when Republicans prevented the initial voting proposal by the Democrats to come up for discussion. Manchin stayed with his party for that vote, but warned he would not support final approval of the bill, then known as the For the People Act, without major changes. So the Democrats agreed to big changes. During the summer negotiations, they revised and lowered the measure to win Manchin’s support. Gone are many of the campaign finance provisions of the original bill, along with a requirement for states to establish impartial redistricting commissions. The new proposal, now dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act, maintains the standards against new GOP state laws that restrict voting access, and it includes new elements aimed at preventing Republican attempts to undermine elections. after the polls are closed. This year alone, more than a dozen red states have passed laws that make voting more difficult.

Manchin not only supports the Freedom to Vote Act, he is a co-sponsor of the bill. But Democrats need more than his vote, or even his pride in authorship, to turn it into law. Manchin gives them 50 votes, but passage in the Senate to win, Democrats or Republicans need 10 to defeat a filibuster or have Manchin (and Sinema and any other member of their party) require a change in the rules to the to enable voting. law to move forward with a simple majority. And that’s where the proud West Virginia traditionalist has drawn the line. After toying with potential changes that would weaken the filibuster earlier this year, Manchin has redoubled its defense of the procedural tool as a protection of minority rights and a stimulus for a bipartisan consensus. (The filibuster’s critics say it has the opposite effects.)

Manchin told Democrats over the summer that he wanted time to reach out to Republicans to see if he could get support for the revised bill. The Democrats agreed, but they really had no other choice. Getting Manchin to either win the Republicans or agree to dump the filibuster is the party’s only hope of enacting legislation that its members believe is vital to protecting democracy. Democrats also need other members of their party, especially Sinema, on board, but without Manchin’s support the idea is dead. Democrats have virtually no influence on Manchin, a red state Democrat who wins the election only by convincing conservative voters to trust him. At any time, he can bring the Senate back under GOP control by switching sides or swearing to support Mitch McConnell as majority leader. As if to remind Democrats of that inconvenient fact, David Corn of Mother Jones reported Just an hour before today’s vote, Manchin told his staff that if Democrats disagree with his demands to cut Biden’s budget, he will lock the party and gain independence. The story didn’t specifically mention the filibuster or voting rights, but the message from Manchin or his allies is the same: don’t push too hard.

What today’s vote made clear is that Manchin has persuaded exactly zero Republicans to support a bill that is now partially his own. Even Alaskan Lisa Murkowski, the only GOP senator open to another update to the 1964 Voting Rights Act, was against a debate over the Freedom to Vote Act. What Democrats must hope is that this failure will be an important lesson in Joe Manchin’s education, that he will now have seen with his own eyes that there is no way for voting rights legislation as long as the filibuster remains intact. But it’s just as likely that today’s vote will drop much less memorable, as another step in the slow death of Democrats’ long-standing pressure to protect the next national election.

After Vice President Kamala Harris closed the ballot, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his party’s struggle was “far from over”. He said the Senate would soon draft a new voting rights bill named after the late Representative John Lewis — a bill that is likely to suffer the same fate as the Freedom to Vote Act. Schumer invoked Senate history and the Civil War changes that ended slavery to show how important he believed the matter was. But he had no more news to report, no next steps to break the deadlock over voting rights. The articulate Manchin had nothing to say, and when Schumer finished his short speech, the Senate moved on to something else.