Democrats say they’re at a turning point with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Manchin’s decision to make known his opposition to the party’s sweeping voting rights legislation, a top priority for many Democrats, has raised serious questions about whether they can enact the bold agenda envisioned for President Biden’s first term.
Manchin and another centrist, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have created irksome obstacles within their own caucus, and Democrats have yet to land on a strategy for dealing with the internal dissent.
A host of Democratic leaders and progressive activists who spoke to The Hill on Monday expressed a mix of resignation and anger over Manchin’s weekend op-ed voicing his objection to the For The People Act. Several noted there appeared to be no heads up to the White House or key Democratic leaders that it was coming. And it was widely seen as an abrasive move.
While a number of Democrats were careful with their public remarks, anger is building given the difficulties to passing major structural reforms now coming from within the party.
“Anger at Manchin and Sinema, when it comes to response, it’s nearly as strong as what we saw under [former President] Trump,” said Brianna Wu, executive director of Rebellion PAC, a left-wing political action committee attempting to recruit primary challengers to centrist lawmakers.
A vocal portion of the party believes that challenging Manchin and Sinema from the left is the best way forward.
The thinking is that with enough pressure, voters will see the moderates’ attempts to work with Republicans as increasingly politically untenable. Progressives like Wu want to run ads meant to dampen Manchin’s and Sinema’s approval ratings on their home turfs. And they believe they can make inroads.
But other Democrats believe finding a Democrat to the left of Manchin who can win a general election in Trump-loving West Virginia is nothing more than wishcasting. Manchin isn’t up for reelection until 2024, and with the 2022 midterm elections on the horizon, they argue the window for experimentation is limited.
“I don’t think we have time for primary challenges,” said first-term Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.). “It’s unclear if West Virginia is going to give us anyone better than Joe Manchin.”
Jones and other elected officials are looking at Biden to redirect the conversation around voting rights entirely. In Jones’s view, the president has worked with prominent Republicans and centrists within his own party for decades and should be tested on his ability to sway the senator to passing the bill with the right framing. If the president can’t make inroads with Manchin over an act that fundamentally protects democratic principles, Jones said, he’s unlikely to be able to move him on other components of his agenda.
The White House on Monday played it safe, deflecting a question about whether Biden considers Manchin, with whom he enjoys a collegial relationship, to be a hindrance.
“We’re certainly not ready to accept that analysis,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing. “I will say that the president considers Sen. Manchin a friend. He knows that they may disagree on some issues as they do on this particular piece of [voting rights] legislation. He’s going to continue to work with him, reach out to him, engage with him directly and through his staff on how we can work together moving forward.”
Psaki did not answer when asked if Manchin and the White House communicated before the op-ed was published. Pressed further by The Hill on whether the administration plans to engage with progressives on moving Manchin to align with the rest of the party, spokesperson Andrew Bates said, “The White House has direct relations with members of the House and Senate.”
Manchin rattled Democrats with the timing and strong wording in his opinion piece published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The senator described the legislation, seen by many Democrats as a premier piece of legislation that should unify the party, as a “partisan” measure.
“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act,” wrote Manchin, arguably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. He then made a series of appearances on television news further emphasizing his position.
Within hours, some liberal activists said their inboxes started piling up with concerned messages.
Wu said she has been eyeing the senator’s moves carefully since Biden took office in January, when Democrats reclaimed control of the Senate and maintained their majority in the House.
“Our role as a progressive group is to make their lives hell when people like Manchin and Sinema vote the wrong way,” she said.
The op-ed was published just two days before he is scheduled to meet with prominent civil rights leaders. At least two people who expect to attend Tuesday’s meeting said they were not aware that the senator was going to forcefully oppose the bill over the weekend. Both remained cautiously optimistic that the conversation will be productive.
“Our agenda was always just to build a relationship and open up a dialogue,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. “Ultimately we want to make sure that we protect the rights of citizens to cast their ballots. That’s the most nonpartisan thing that any one of us can do.”
The conversation around the latest intraparty divide largely centers around the filibuster. The majority of Democratic senators support doing away with it, labeling it an old practice that has been used to stifle important progress on civil rights issues.
Sinema irritated many progressives late last week when she offered a staunch defense of the filibuster days after it was used to block a vote on creating an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
In recent months, activists have worked to mount pressure on senators who oppose putting an end to the rule.
Fix Our Senate, a group created exclusively to end the filibuster, is planning a mobilization campaign and has devoted advertising spending toward the issue. Other activists are making plans to campaign in person around democracy reforms.
Early next week, the Poor People’s Campaign will host a “Moral March on Manchin” in West Virginia with the senator’s constituents. The event was announced after Manchin’s op-ed was published.
“I have to believe that Joe Manchin does not want to have a legacy defined by his opposition to voting rights in this country,” Jones said.