Jan 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Dems on Manchin: “Like negotiating via Etch A Sketch”

Illustration of Senator Joe Manchin as an etch-a-sketch image
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

President Biden, Democratic leaders and their emissaries are trying to convince Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to pass a sweeping federal elections bill with a menu of filibuster alternatives. The problem is speaking with him is "like negotiating via Etch A Sketch," sources with direct knowledge of his recent meetings tell Axios.

Why it matters: The president and his top legislative allies see the bill — Manchin's own Freedom to Vote Act — as key to thwarting Republican-led changes at the state and local levels and preserving their chances in this fall's midterm elections.

  • "You think you're just about there. You think you've got an agreement on most of the things and it's settling in. And then you come back the next morning and you're starting from scratch," said the one source who made the Etch A Sketch analogy.
  • To date, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) haven't wavered in their opposition to lowering the 60-vote threshold for passing major legislation or creating a one-time carve-out to bypass the filibuster.
  • That's made the conversations largely futile.

The big picture: The White House is leaning heavily on Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to lobby Manchin over the Freedom to Vote Act.

  • The four are longtime friends who've all, at one point, been skeptical of filibuster reform.
  • Manchin especially appreciates that Kaine and King, like him, are former governors, Axios is told.
  • And while the group, which has met multiple times in the past several weeks, has successfully gotten Manchin to negotiate, the talks have been inconsistent and circular, the sources with direct knowledge of them said.

What they're saying: One aide to a senator in the room described how, after meeting with the three senators, Manchin will go home and take several calls from outsiders.

  • He'll then return with a myriad of new questions, reopening an old debate.
  • “I think he listens to everybody, which is the problem. Whoever he's heard from most recently has the upper hand," this source said.
  • “Senator Manchin believes strongly that every American citizen of legal age has not only the right, but also the responsibility to vote and that right must be protected by law. He continues to work on legislation to protect this right,” Manchin's spokesperson said.

Behind the scenes: The fellow senators are trying to sway their colleague by discussing possible limits to a filibuster carve-out. But Manchin has made clear he doesn't believe in carve-outs, something he reiterated to reporters last week.

  • The most effective arguments, sources say, include the "talking filibuster" — a requirement legislative opponents must remain speaking to block a bill, to which he's signaled an openness to requiring — and the "reverse filibuster" — in which passing a bill would need 40 members to vote "no" rather than needing 60 to vote "yes."
  • King, Tester and Kaine also have emphasized reforming Senate rules is not muscling through a policy — such as gun control or tax cuts — where there is a difference of opinion.
  • It's about pushing through protections for democracy and Congress as a governing body, they argue.

Meanwhile, many Senate Democrats also think the White House and Senate leadership are underestimating the size of their challenge with Sinema.

  • One Senate Democrat who spoke last week with Sinema, at length, about voting rights told Axios she's a bigger challenge to altering Senate rules than Manchin.
  • "There is no movement from the position that she articulated in a Washington Post editorial," the senator said. The headline read: "We have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster."
  • "I am not convinced it's impossible; I'm just convinced that what we're doing isn't moving her," Sinema's Senate colleague said.
  • "Senator Sinema continues to strongly support the voting rights legislation being considered in the Senate and continues engaging in good-faith discussions," Sinema's spokesperson told Axios.
  • "Her position on eliminating the 60-vote threshold — and the long-term negative consequences of doing so — has not changed. ... [I]f there are proposals to make the Senate work better for everyday Americans without risking repeated radical reversals in federal policy, she remains eager to discuss such ideas."
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