Dec 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Dems invoke Robert Byrd to sell Manchin on Senate rules changes

Photo illustration of Robert Byrd and Joe Manchin.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Diana Walker, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A small group of Senate Democrats is privately invoking the legacy of late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in an effort to sway Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support their plans to change the chamber's rules, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Manchin — who holds Byrd's Senate seat — has often referenced his predecessor's strong moral conviction and insistence on preserving the Senate as an institution, as justification for some of his tough positions.

  • Even Byrd, one of the most ardent defenders of Senate decorum and procedure, helped change the Senate rules in the face of obstruction, these senators argue. The group includes Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
  • Invoking Byrd's legacy is one tack to convince Manchin to get on board, particularly as Democrats navigate a filibuster workaround to pass voting rights legislation.
  • While Manchin, to the chagrin of several of his Democratic colleagues, has repeatedly refused to eliminate the filibuster, he's shown openness to changing Senate rules, multiple lawmakers and their aides tell Axios.

The backdrop: The push comes as Democrats have been meeting behind closed doors on a package of rule changes to help break the gridlock confronting the Senate, particularly with a 50-50 split chamber.

  • "We're exploring other alternatives," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Axios.
  • "We are looking at a whole package of reforms to make the Senate work better that we think could facilitate passage of voting rights, but would not abolish the filibuster," Kaine also said Tuesday.
  • The push "is also to respond to complaints that senators in both the Republican and Democratic parties have made" about floor procedure and the difficulty of passing even bipartisan legislation, such as the National Defense Authorization Act, Kaine added.

What we're hearing: A source close to Manchin confirmed Democrats have pointed to Byrd on several occasions when trying to sell him on potential rules changes.

  • Tester, a close friend of Manchin's, also told Axios he thinks invoking Byrd's legacy "could help."
  • "[Byrd] said the rules need to change or adapt to the times," Tester said. "I mean, he was the guru of rules. What are we working on now? 'Byrd Baths'."
  • Tester said he's had "multiple" conversations with Manchin about the effort to reform Senate rules, saying his colleague has signaled enough openness to give the group confidence to keep talking.

Manchin also has been having informal conversations with Senate Republicans about potential reforms, the Hill first reported and Axios has confirmed.

  • "We've spoken about the difficulty in having nominees of a candidate get reviewed and moved on a timely basis," Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told Axios of his conversations with Manchin.
  • A Manchin aide cautioned against drawing any conclusions, telling Axios the senator will have a conversation with anyone on any topic.
  • Such conversations don't indicate he's on board with any proposed changes.
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