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Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin

Senate Democrats have been left confused and befuddled by Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Ocasio-Cortez: 'Old way of politics' influences Manchin's thinking The Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience 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 MerkleyDemocrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Chicago police officer arrested for role in Capitol riot Democrats reintroduce bill to create 'millionaires surtax' 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 TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short 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 KlobucharDemocrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill House unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Democrats reintroduce bill to create 'millionaires surtax' 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 McConnellWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats 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 CoonsBiden prepares to confront Putin Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema 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 SchumerIt's not just Manchin: No electoral mandate stalls Democrats' leftist agenda DOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records Democrats demand Barr, Sessions testify on Apple data subpoenas 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 DurbinThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns Ex-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Trump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says MORE (D-Ill.), who said Manchin supports the John LewisJohn LewisWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Garland vows fight against voting limits that violate law 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.