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Manchin insists he supports voting rights — we'll see

Manchin insists he supports voting rights — we'll see
© Greg Nash

I've known Sen. Joe Machin (D-W.Va.) since shortly after he arrived in the Senate. I like him and appreciate he's a very effective power broker. On the central issue of voter suppression and democracy, we'll see whether he's being shrewdly canny or shamefully disingenuous.

Last weekend the West Virginia Democrat wrote a column for a home state paper declaring he wouldn't vote to end the filibuster rules — no news there — and opposes the House-passed voting bill that is supported by most other Senate Democrats.

The question still is whether — with Senate Democratic leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerWhite House draws ire of progressives amid voting rights defeat Murkowski to vote 'no' on voting rights bill Harris to preside over Senate for voting rights debate MORE and President BidenJoe BidenBaltimore police chief calls for more 'boots on the ground' to handle crime wave Biden to deliver remarks at Sen. John Warner's funeral Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump MORE — Manchin can devise a way to pass a dramatically slimmed down measure that overrides state voter suppression laws.

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The Democratic left would be would be well advised to lay low.

No Senator represents a state so dominated by the other party. A Democratic stronghold only a quarter century ago, West Virginia now has a Republican governor, an overwhelming GOP majority in the state legislature, all three U.S. House members Republican, and the other U.S. Senator. Only Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSchumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster Biden says push to advance elections overhaul 'far from over' Pelosi quashes reports on Jan. 6 select committee MORE, a former governor, could survive this red tide.

His Sunday column, however, was deceptive, even a little sophomoric.

He begins by extolling the right to vote as fundamental to American Democracy: “Protecting this right, which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner.”

It is the because of the “partisan manner” in which Republicans enacted draconian voting suppression measures in states like Georgia, Arizona, Florida, with Texas on deck, especially aimed at voters of color, that caused this problem. This was in response to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE's demonstrably false charge that the last election was “stolen” from him.

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The fundamental right to vote is being compromised if those state laws are not superceded by federal action. If Sen Manchin really believes what he wrote, he can a.) somehow persuade those states to rescind those laws, or b.) support a slimmed down federal bill to override those restrictions, a Congressional corrective.

He further writes that any congressional action must be bipartisan. Does he think he can persuade ten Republicans to support congressional action? Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate GOP blocks voting rights bill Schumer, McConnell spar as GOP prepares to block voting bill Trump has 'zero desire' to be Speaker, spokesman says MORE has given marching orders that this must be rejected. When it comes to delivering Senate Republican votes, I'd bet on McConnell over Manchin eight days a week.

Manchin plays make believe: “Are the very Republican Senators who voted to impeach Trump because of actions that led to an attack on our democracy unwilling to support actions that strengthen our democracy?”

The answer, of course, is yes — with perhaps an exception or two. Seven Republicans voted to impeach Trump, short of the ten that would be required to end a voting rights filibuster over McConnell's objections. Only six Senate Republicans voted for a bi-partisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Trump-incited mob assault on the Capitol.

The West Virginia Democrat's political prowess has been enhanced by the 50-50 split in the Senate. With the partisan divide, even measures that can pass with a simple majority need his support.

Manchin said instead that he'll push for bipartisan backing for the separate John LewisJohn LewisSchumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster Biden says push to advance elections overhaul 'far from over' Murkowski to vote 'no' on voting rights bill MORE voting rights bill. This is a cop-out. That bill, which hasn't even been acted on by the House, would prospectively allow the Justice Department to review voting changes in states. As reform advocates like Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 have noted, it would have no effect on the state voting suppression laws passed this year. That other bill came up in the last Congress; House Republicans voted 186 to one against the legislation, and Republicans bottled it up in the Senate.

So, what's the off-ramp to validate my earlier confidence in Joe Manchin? First, public pressure won't work. A few New York congressmen blasted him — denunciation from New York City lawmakers is a plus for Manchin in West Virginia.

Two, most of the 800-page bill has to be scrapped. There are provisions like requiring all presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns and other ethics provisions. These, like the Republican voter suppression provisions, are a reaction to Trump. Take them up separately.

A few voting-related items like partial public financing of congressional elections and limiting partisan gerrymandering, while desirable, probably will have to be casualties to get a slimmed-down bill.

Then Schumer is right to schedule votes to see if ten Republicans will support a bill that focuses on protecting the “fundamental right” of voting.

They won't.

That could give Manchin the rationale to say he tried mightily for a bipartisan approach… but now the only way to protect this precious right is to carve out an exception from the filibuster rule, as Republicans and Democrats have done in recent years.

Much of Biden's presidency and Schumer's standing as a Senate leader is at stake. So is Joe Manchin's commitment to voting rights.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.