Joe Manchin pushes a revisionist history in his fight to preserve the filibuster

Joe Manchin pushes a revisionist history in his fight to preserve the filibuster
Sen. Joe Manchin in 2017, Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday, just months out from the midterm elections, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., blocked their own party's effort to pass a sweeping voting rights overhaul by refusing to exempt the measure from a Republican filibuster. The conservative Democratic explained his reasoning during a floor speech that day, addressing the upper chamber just as President Joe Biden prepared to address the nation ahead of his one-year anniversary in office. As Biden continued to push his stalled agenda, Manchin erected a big poster with one sentence to encapsulate his defense of the filibuster: "The United States Senate has NEVER been able to end debate with a SIMPLE MAJORITY."

Manchin's logic rests on the claim that no party has ever ended debate with a simple majority, largely because a filibuster requires 60 votes for a cloture (i.e., the official procedure used to end the filibuster). By creating a voting rights carveout in the filibuster that would allow Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority, Democrats would be breaking legislative tradition, Manchin argues. His central assumption, however, is untrue.

The last three Supreme Court nominees – Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch – were all confirmed with a simple majority, noted political commentator Brian Tyler Cohen. In fact, Manchin himself was the 51st senator to back Kavanaugh, single-handedly ending debate on the scandal-plagued judge's confirmation.

And during Gorsuch's 2017 nomination, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lowered the cloture threshold for a Supreme Court nomination from 60 to 51 votes – or a simple majority.

Manchin's opposition to a filibuster carveout also flies in the face of his past comments around changing the Senate rules.

Back in 2011, when Manchin was just a freshman senator, Senate Democrats failed to circumvent a Republican filibuster of then-President Barack Obama's $447 billion jobs plan. At the time, Manchin expressed frustration over the GOP's maneuver, suggesting that a bipartisan compromise may have been reached if not for the filibuster.

"We have become paralyzed by the filibuster and an unwillingness to work together at all, just because it's an election cycle," Manchin told the Charleston Daily Mail. "We couldn't even get the horse in the start gate, let alone to run the race. That's the problem here. It's political and it's being played absolutely unmercifully at the highest level."

Later that year, Manchin issued a press release expressly calling the Senate to "fix the filibuster."

"If senators want to halt action on a bill, they must take to the floor and hold it through sustained debate; end filibusters on motions to proceed to debate," the Democrat said.

On Wednesday, emotions ran high amongst Democrats, who have endured months of slow-walking by both Manchin and Sinema on President Biden's Build Back Better Act, the president's signature $2.2 trillion social spending plan.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was clear on this point, saying that "it's not just this [filibuster] vote" that's frustrating.

"These are people who I think have undermined the President of the United States," he told reporters after Wednesday's failed vote. "They have forced us to go through five months of discussions which have gotten absolutely nowhere."

Back in December, Manchin effectively ended negotiations with both Biden and Senate Democrats on Build Back Better, saying that he could not support the measure due to fears around inflation and the national debt.

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