Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, is on a path that has a fork near the end with a sign posted: Do I love the Senate more than I love my country?
Due to his desire to seek a compromise with Senate Republicans, Senator Manchin has offered a modified set of voting rights bills — taking off from the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — that are less, in a word, “liberal” than those written by his Senate Democratic colleagues.
Yet the chances that the Senate would pass any version of either of these bills with 60 votes, as required by the Senate filibuster rule, are basically nonexistent. The first attempt to get the 60 votes needed to pass a voting rights bill failed June 22, when the vote was split 50-50 along party lines. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has vowed that 60 votes will never happen, and Mitch frequently gets his way when he aims to obstruct something. He views the Democratic bills as “power grabs.”
When Senator Manchin reaches his fork, the choice will be crystal clear: Does he preserve what he believes to be an institution vital to the Senate and to democracy — namely the filibuster. Or does he agree to strike down the filibuster (or at least modify its use) for voting rights bills in order to save democracy itself?
Although it is difficult to predict the future when it concerns human decisions and actions, if 18 states are able to enforce newly passed election laws that make it harder to register or to vote, the odds suggest voter turnout would decline in 2022 and 2024, especially among African Americans, who are historically the most likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
On a parallel track, some states have already passed laws that would make it easier for legislators to overturn the results of an election that they find suspicious. Added together, this may be enough to flip the House and Senate in 2022. And then, in 2024, Mr. Trump or another Republican could waltz into the White House if our democratic electoral system remains in ruins.
Regarding the filibuster, Senator Manchin has insisted for months he will not budge.
Can truly nothing change his mind? Or does he want to pursue bipartisanship as far as possible, until it is clear that it just won’t work? If it’s the former, then it will look like Senator Manchin values the Senate (as well as his own job) more than the future of American democracy.
Senator Manchin would of course emphatically deny that this is the case. But what else could one conclude if he is willing to risk democracy to save the filibuster? And why preserve the filibuster to foster bipartisanship if the stated goal of the Republicans he is seeking compromise with is to strangle any voting rights legislation?
The Founding Fathers didn’t put the filibuster into the U.S. Constitution, nor is it in the Bill of Rights; it is not one of the 27 amendments either. Indeed, the filibuster has no constitutional residency. It was first used as a live doctrine in 1837, but Brookings Institution/George Washington University scholar Sarah Binder traced its origin to a mistake in 1806 when Aaron Burr was vice president.
And why does he think the filibuster is so critical to bipartisanship when it really only has power when one party controls the House, the Senate and the White House? It doesn’t matter what the Senate does if the president is going to veto the bill they pass, even if it has bipartisan support.
Senator Manchin might ask himself: What use will the filibuster or the Senate itself be in a permanent GOP-ruled government that will never allow itself to be voted out of power, which amounts to an electoral dictatorship?
Senator Manchin (and Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema) needs to look within and ask what matters most: the perceived importance of preserving the Senate as it now exists (which is anything but functional or bipartisan) or the outcome predicted by over 100 experts on democracy who issued a recent statement via New America claiming that, without some form of immediate intervention, democracy itself could be lost if the GOP returns to power?
In the end, the senator from West Virginia needs to ask himself what he values more: the United States Senate or the United States of America.
Dave Anderson has taught political philosophy and ethics at five universities and is editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He can be reached at email@example.com.