The strongest voices lobbying Joe Manchin to change Senate rules and advance elections reform aren’t liberal activists or die-hard filibuster opponents. Instead, they're a small group of his friends who once shared his reluctance.
It’s no accident that the same trio of centrist Democrats has nudged Manchin throughout the past month’s flurry of talks about the future of the filibuster. Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine) were all resistant to loosening chamber rules that empower the minority party. Now, they’re leading the campaign to sway the West Virginia Democrat.
Tester, Kaine and King have met at least a dozen times with Manchin to talk about Senate rules, sometimes joined by other Democrats, according to participants. They're the vanguard of a delicate effort to chip away at Manchin’s steadfast opposition to changing the filibuster.
Manchin has told colleagues that his phone line has been lighting up with prominent names outside the Senate in recent days. He’s heard from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and talk-show legend Oprah Winfrey, plus former staffers to both Manchin and former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), according to a person familiar with the talks. Manchin's office declined comment on those calls.
But perhaps the most fertile discussions take place behind closed doors, among the senators themselves. Kaine likened the effort to his 27-hour drive to Washington earlier this week after a snowstorm devastated I-95: “Slow progress toward a goal, like my commute.”
Manchin is crystal clear that he doesn’t want to change the 60-vote threshold required to pass most bills via a unilateral vote, which is currently the only option to gut the filibuster. At the same time, he has a hard time saying no to his pals.
And that explains Manchin’s relatively open rhetoric in recent days about whether there are changes to the filibuster that could make the Senate work better. He’s entertained modest adjustments, which many Democrats now see as the tiniest glimmer of hope that they could eventually succeed. But they aren’t there yet — not even close.
“I can’t say we have a solution or a resolution or a decision. But we’re continuing to talk. That’s the good news,” King said.
The talks among the four centrists represent the best chance Democrats have to sway Manchin in the coming days as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer seeks a vote by Jan. 17 on Senate rules changes. Schumer is playing the outside heavy, repeatedly putting pressure on Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to endorse a rule change that would allow a simple majority to pass elections reform.
Even then, the effort is a long shot at best. At this point, Manchin and Sinema endorsing a weaker filibuster via the unilateral “nuclear option” would be one of the biggest reversals in modern political history.
Discussions with Sinema are taking place separately, and she’s been emphatic she doesn’t want to touch the supermajority requirement. Yet many Democrats think if Manchin endorses anything, the rest of the caucus will follow.
At the same time, Manchin and Sinema are part of a bipartisan group that began convening this week to discuss revising the Electoral Count Act and other more modest electoral reforms. If Manchin and Sinema, as expected, spurn a major rules change this month to pass sweeping elections reform, that could leave those discussions as the best hope for any action at all on that front.
Nonetheless, people like Tester, whose home state is nearly as conservative as Manchin’s, are making the case directly to Manchin to entertain a filibuster change. Tester, Kaine and King all signed a letter in 2017 vowing to “preserve existing rules” of the Senate, but they all say the Jan. 6 insurrection and other events have changed their minds.
“Joe’s a complex guy. We’re all complex people,” Tester said. “All three of us have been in a position where we didn’t want to change the filibuster. And I think if it wasn’t weaponized, I wouldn’t be talking about it now.”
Publicly, the talk of the filibuster is specifically marketed to Manchin. Democrats often refer to Byrd, whose seat Manchin now holds, and his eventual support for changes to Senate rules over the course of his career. And instead of talking about killing or gutting the filibuster, Democrats now portray their push as one to “restore” the Senate.
Manchin said several times this week he does not support Democrats changing the rules on their own and prefers to work on any changes across the aisle, just as he’s hoped to do on elections reform. In an interview, Manchin said his Democratic buddies aren’t giving him a hard sell.
“It’s very informational. My goodness, we’ve got a lot of historical background, learning how we got to where we are today as a body. How we’ve evolved and who we are and how we got here and the changes that have been made over a period of time,” Manchin said. “They’re all my friends … they know where I’m at.”
Perhaps most encouraging to Democrats, Manchin hasn’t said no to hearing them out. It’s all part of Manchin’s long arc on elections reform: opposing Democrats’ first version last year, then working with colleagues to write a version he could support. He then spent months trying to recruit Republicans to sign onto elections reform and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, ending up with only GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) support for the latter.
Despite that brick wall of GOP opposition thus far, Manchin has basically ruled out a party-line rules change, calling it a “heavy lift” this week. He’s also dismissing making an exception to the filibuster specifically for elections and voting, saying this week, "Anytime there's a carve-out, you eat the whole turkey.” Manchin has voted against the Senate’s unilateral rules changes under both Democratic and Republican majorities.
He’s also continued to defend the supermajority requirement and casts doubt on anything that would water it down. The reforms he’s entertained include getting rid of a filibuster vote on even debating bills and changing the 60-vote threshold to a three-fifths requirement that would force more members of the minority to stay in Washington. However, those wouldn’t create a clear path for elections reform to pass the Senate.
Yet for the trio of Senate optimisms, Manchin’s openness alone, a year after he vowed to never change the filibuster, is something of a victory.
“He understands there’s an urgency to getting voting rights done very soon. So, the question is, how do we accomplish that?” Kaine said. “The question is, what’s the preferred option? And we’re just not there.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
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