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Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin

Senate Democrats have been left confused and befuddled by Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Senators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden is keeping the filibuster to have 'a Joe Manchin presidency' MORE, and say they’re trying to figure out what their West Virginia colleague is thinking with his most recent moves in bucking his party.

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 MerkleyJeff MerkleySchumer vows next steps after 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster Progressives fear nightmare scenario over voting rights assault This week: Senate set for voting rights fight MORE (D-Ore.) and former Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallSenate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin Study: Chemical used in paint thinners caused more deaths than EPA identified Oregon senator takes center stage in Democratic filibuster debate MORE (D-N.M.).

"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."

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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 TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE 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 KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Tech antitrust bills create strange bedfellows in House markup | Rick Scott blocks Senate vote on top cyber nominee until Harris visits border | John McAfee dies Klobuchar questions Amazon, Alphabet over smart-home devices Schumer vows next steps after 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE (D-Minn.), who helped craft the legislation.

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.

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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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCan Manchin answer his predecessor's call on voting rights? Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' Democrats' narrow chance to retain control after 2022 MORE’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.

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 CoonsChris Andrew CoonsLobbying world Cutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis Progressive groups ramp up pressure on Feinstein MORE (D-Del.), a leading proponent of Senate bipartisanship who supports the election reform bill.

Manchin’s voting rights litmus test has heightened concerns about where he will be when Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats urge Biden to extend moratorium on student loan payments White House draws ire of progressives amid voting rights defeat Murkowski to vote 'no' on voting rights bill MORE (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 DurbinDick Durbin'Killibuster': Democratic angst grows as filibuster threatens agenda Biden administration to back bill ending crack, powder cocaine sentence disparity: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats await Manchin decision on voting rights bill MORE (D-Ill.), who said Manchin supports the John LewisJohn LewisCan Manchin answer his predecessor's call on voting rights? Biden to deliver remarks on voting access next week Schumer vows next steps after 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE 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.

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“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.