Democrats try to pin down Manchin on voting rights

Democrats are trying to put the squeeze on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as they seek clarification on what he wants in voting rights and election legislation.

Manchin sparked widespread angst this week by digging in on his opposition to the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that would overhaul federal elections. Democrats are now vowing to ramp up pressure on the key moderate.

At the same time, Democrats have been careful to not publicly criticize Manchin, which they believe would backfire. Instead, they are having behind-the-scenes talks with him and publicly questioning what specific changes he would want and how he thinks voting rights legislation can get 60 votes, the amount needed to avoid a GOP filibuster.

“A bunch of us have been meeting and talking with him even today,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Democrats are also pushing Manchin to specify what provisions he supports, and which ones he doesn’t, in the For the People Act, hoping that a detailed list as early as this week could provide some clarity on a path forward.

“Joe Manchin said he would be sending us a list of things that were acceptable and objectionable in S. 1,” Durbin said, referring to the legislation’s bill number.

Democrats met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss voting rights as well as infrastructure and the party’s June agenda. Durbin said they had a “frank and candid” conversation on the For the People Act.

“There’s a lot of strong feelings about that bill,” he told reporters.

But Manchin wasn’t at the closed-door lunch, the first caucus meeting since his Sunday op-ed announcing his opposition to the voting rights bill. A spokesperson told The Hill that he had a “conflicting meeting.”

It’s the second meeting where the For the People Act was discussed without Manchin. Democrats convened their first caucus meeting in mid-May, but Manchin was in West Virginia traveling with first lady Jill Biden.

He attended a caucus meeting in late May, but Democrats noted at the time that he didn’t speak during the gathering.

That’s left his fellow Democrats trying to figure out what exactly he wants, and how to get him on board ahead of a vote on the House-passed bill slated for the week of June 21.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said there have been staff-level discussions but “we have to see what he wants.”

“You know, our manager’s amendment had tons of changes that actually got at what the West Virginia secretary of state was concerned about, and concerns specifically related to West Virginia. … That’s the beginning of the discussion,” Klobuchar said, referring to the version of the bill that deadlocked in the Senate Rules Committee last month.

This is hardly the first time Manchin has kept his caucus guessing. He held up President Biden’s coronavirus relief bill for hours in March as he negotiated last-minute changes to unemployment language. No Republicans ended up voting for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

This time around, advocates like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are urging their supporters to make the case to Manchin that the For the People Act is bipartisan.

“We know this bipartisanship argument can work. It is the exact same thing President Biden said before Manchin reversed himself on the American Rescue Plan,” they wrote in an email.

The For the People Act aims to expand ballot access while also overhauling campaign finance rules, changing the makeup of the Federal Election Commission, imposing new ethics rules for public officials and establishing new requirements on congressional redistricting.

Democrats view passing voting legislation as existential as GOP-controlled legislatures across the country introduce, debate and pass bills that in many cases restrict access to voting. But they are willing to make changes to the bill as they try to figure out how to win over Manchin.

“We will vote on voting rights legislation, bold legislation, S. 1, in the last week in June. Now, is it possible we might change a few things here and there? … We’ve had discussions with Sen. Manchin and they’re continuing,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been in talks with Manchin.

A Senate Democratic aide added that there was broad interest within the caucus in Manchin detailing how he’s going to pick up Republican support and providing specifics on what specific changes he would want to the bill.

Manchin declined to say if he would vote against even allowing the For the People Act to come up for debate.

Voting for the bill on the procedural hurdle, even if he doesn’t support the underlying legislation, could allow Democrats to claim a symbolic victory of a united caucus, even though it won’t get the 60 votes needed to advance.

“The issue is we’re trying to get to a place where we’ve got all 50 Democrats on board,” Kaine said, adding that Manchin hasn’t indicated he would vote against a motion to proceed to floor debate on the bill.

Manchin met with civil rights leaders on Tuesday as they tried to sway him on election legislation. He described himself as in listening mode and called the talk “constructive,” but gave no indication that he had been swayed on the bill.

“I don’t think anybody changed positions on that,” he said.

Instead, he’s urging his caucus to focus their efforts on H.R. 4, legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A Supreme Court decision in 2013 gutted the decades-old law by striking down a formula for determining whether state and local governments were required to get Justice Department pre-clearance for voting and election changes.

But Democrats are warning that they don’t believe that goes far enough because it wouldn’t curtail voting laws that some states have already enacted, and the For the People Act comes much further than the Lewis-named voting bill.

“H.R. 4 must be passed,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, referring to the Lewis bill, “but it will not be ready until the fall, and it is not a substitute for” the For the People Act.

There’s broad belief in the caucus that 10 Republicans won’t support the sweeping elections bill, raising questions about how Manchin envisions getting to 60 votes.

“I think it’s virtually impossible to,” Kaine said. “But our job is a pretty straightforward one: Let’s get to a place where all 50 Dems feel comfortable with what the voting rights package is.”