Joe Manchin keeps Democrats guessing on sweeping election bill

Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE (D-W.Va.) is keeping his colleagues guessing on whether he will back a sweeping election bill during a high-profile vote next week.

Democrats are expected to hold a key test vote next week on S. 1, titled the For the People Act. The debate will spotlight a simmering months-long fight over voting rights. The measure is guaranteed to run headlong into a filibuster, but Democrats are hoping to at least put up a unified front and keep the focus on GOP opposition — not their own divisions. 

Progressive activists, meanwhile, want to get all senators in the Democratic caucus to back the bill. Then, they would ratchet up their efforts to eradicate the legislative filibuster in the hopes of getting the legislation to President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE’s desk.

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But Manchin isn’t yet willing to say if he’ll back the bill, even as progressive groups roast him publicly and his colleagues make a weeks-long behind-the-scenes effort to try to win over his support. 

“We’ll have to see what changes are made,” Manchin told reporters when asked how he’ll vote.

Manchin, an old-school political backslapper and the most conservative Senate Democrat, is the lone formal holdout on the sweeping elections bill. While other Democrats have privately asked for modifications, all other 49 members of the caucus are formal co-sponsors and expected to vote for the legislation during next week’s floor showdown. 

Manchin circulated a list to his colleagues late last week, which was shared with reporters Wednesday at Manchin’s insistence. It outlines what he supports, and doesn’t, in the election reform bill as well as his ideas for strengthening the Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. 

In his white paper, Manchin outlined roughly two dozen ideas that garnered his approval, including making Election Day a public holiday, mandating at least 15 consecutive days for early voting in federal elections, banning gerrymandering and instituting automatic voter registration through the DMV. 

The West Virginia legislator backs tighter campaign finance requirements currently in the For the People Act, including requiring online and digital ads to disclose their source similar to TV and radio ads, tightening ethics requirements for presidents and vice presidents and mandating that campaigns and committees report foreign contacts. 

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“I’ve been sharing everything that I support and the things that I can support and vote with ... and things that I think’s in the bill that [don’t] need to be in the bill,” Manchin told reporters.

But Manchin, according to his Democratic colleagues, hasn’t told them how he’ll vote.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a good voting bill ... that Joe Manchin will vote for,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Watchdog blasts government's handling of Afghanistan conflict | Biden asks Pentagon to look into mandatory vaccines | Congress passes new Capitol security bill GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships MORE (D-Va.), saying he still views Manchin as in play. 

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress should butt out of Supreme Court's business Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic senator, said Manchin has also not told him how he’ll vote.

Democrats will huddle on Thursday to discuss their strategy on voting rights — the latest in a series of closed-door meetings over the last month as they try to figure out a path forward. Manchin, who has missed previous meetings, was expected to attend as of Wednesday. 

“The Senate should put everything on the line to protect voting rights in this country. ... Senate Democrats will hold another special caucus meeting to continue discussing the best path forward to achieve voting rights legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done MORE (D-N.Y.) said. 

Manchin credited Schumer with being understanding of his position, even as it is at odds with many in the caucus.

“He’s been very kind, very tolerant. He understands it’s a very different situation for all of us,” Manchin said. 

Schumer has been under pressure from the left to pass the bill, and his decision to schedule a vote, a first for the bill in the Senate, has been embraced by reform advocates.

Manchin’s list doesn’t include some of the provisions pushed for by progressives. One of the most controversial parts of the For the People Act, public financing of campaigns, doesn’t garner Manchin’s stamp of approval. And while he details what he would support on absentee voting, he doesn’t endorse no-excuse absentee voting. 

And, in what’s likely to rankle some Democrats, he’s proposing voter ID requirements, with the possibility of alternatives such as a utility bill to provide proof of identity in order to vote. 

But the fact that Manchin has formally put forward a proposal has left some of his colleagues and outside groups feeling optimistic heading into next week’s vote. 

“There’s a lot to work with there. It’s a serious proposal. It’s a good faith proposal, and I think we can work with it,” said Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzGyms, hotels, bus companies make last-ditch plea for aid On The Money: Stocks fall as COVID-19 fears rattle market | Schumer sets infrastructure showdown | Dems struggle to sell agenda The Hill's Morning Report - Surging COVID-19 infections loom over US, Olympics MORE (D-Hawaii). 

Asked about some of Manchin’s ideas aligning more closely with Republicans, he added: “Listen, I didn’t think it was a perfect proposal.” 

End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund President Tiffany Muller added in a statement that Manchin’s proposal “is a big first step.” 

“At the end of the day, we are confident that the entire Democratic Caucus will get behind this bill because the American people are behind it and our democracy demands it. Momentum is on our side,” Muller said. 

Manchin has been at the center of a months-long public pressure campaign from progressives and outside groups who have been increasingly exasperated by both his opposition to the For the People Act as it is currently drafted and his refusal to nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster — a hurdle that stands in the way of much of the Democratic agenda. 

After Manchin missed a closed-door caucus meeting on Tuesday when Senate Democrats heard from Texas state legislators who recently staged a walkout to tank a bill that would place new restrictions on voting, Just Democracy asked if he was going to “side with segregationists like Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE, or with voting rights heroes like the late Rep. John LewisJohn LewisHouse ethics panel decides against probe after Hank Johnson civil disobedience Constitutional rights are the exception Clintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats MORE?”

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Progressive activists also marched on Manchin’s office in Charleston, W.Va., earlier this week to urge him to reverse his positions on a host of issues viewed as key Democratic agenda items, including voting rights, a $15 per hour minimum wage and Biden’s infrastructure plan. 

But Manchin’s Senate Democratic colleagues are taking a softer approach, aware that public blasting is likely to only backfire. 

“I think he’s making a really valuable contribution,” said Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games MORE (D-Ore.), who spearheaded the For the People Act.

Asked if he could live with the provisions Manchin wants to drop, Merkley went mum, adding: “I don’t have any other comments for you.”

Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockHarris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries ObamaCare 2.0 is a big funding deal Kaseya ransomware attack highlights cyber vulnerabilities of small businesses MORE (D-Ga.), a vocal supporter of voting rights, said he didn’t think it was useful to try to negotiate with Manchin through the press. 

“At the end of the day we have to find a way to sufficiently check the terrible provisions in Georgia S.B. 202, provisions we’re seeing in states all across the country. ... Joe Manchin’s been a secretary of state. I think he was a pretty good one, and he and I are having fruitful conversations,” Warnock said.