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Manchin unmoved by civil rights meeting as Democrats look for path on elections overhaul

Senate GOP opposition would likely stymie legislation regardless of Democrats

UNITED STATES - JUNE 8: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., arrives for a vote in the Capitol on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 8: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., arrives for a vote in the Capitol on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)

House and Senate Democrats are looking for the best way to address concerns about new state laws they believe put unfair restrictions on voting while dealing with a tight Senate margin and opposition to a sweeping overhaul package from one of their own, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer is committed to putting the massive elections, campaign finance and ethics bill on the floor this month, despite Manchin’s position. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to keep House Democrats on board with the measure, even without a clear path forward for it to become law. 

Pelosi urged her caucus in a “Dear Colleague” letter Tuesday not to abandon the overhaul package in favor of a separate, forthcoming bill to bolster the Voting Rights Act that will be named in honor of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

The Lewis namesake bill is backed by Manchin and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. But Pelosi and other Democrats say it is not a suitable swap for the sweeping, 800-plus-page package, known as the For the People Act and dubbed HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate.

The Lewis voting rights bill, which is expected to be termed HR 4, may not be ready until the fall and is also likely to be tied up in significant legal challenges. Those are two reasons Pelosi does not want to focus solely on that measure.

Pelosi did not mention Manchin in Tuesday’s letter, but her invocation of Lewis made clear that the West Virginia Democrat was on her mind. 

“Congressman John Lewis wrote 300 pages of H.R. 1 to end voter suppression,” she said. “H.R. 1/S. 1 must be passed now. It would be our hope to have this pass the House and Senate in a bipartisan way.”

Other Democrats, including Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, are entertaining breaking up the sprawling elections and campaign finance bill to move pieces that could garner more widespread support. 

“I would be open to looking at certain parts of it that I would hope that we can all support,” Hirono said. 

But she said moving different pieces of the bill would be a big compromise by Democrats. 

“As a person that supported everything that was in the For the People Act, it is going pretty far for me to say I would be open to certain parts of it because my hope was that … all 50 of us would be supportive of it. But that’s clearly not going to be the case. And so I’m also very pragmatic,” Hirono said. 

[Liberal groups pressing for voting, ethics overhaul undaunted by Manchin opposition]

The overhaul measure would require new disclosures of political spending, mandate minimum standards for such practices as automatic voter registration and early voting, revamp foreign and domestic lobbying rules, create an optional public financing system for congressional campaigns, establish independent commissions to draw congressional maps and restructure the Federal Election Commission, among other provisions.

Manchin was unmoved on his opposition to the broader bill Tuesday after what those present described as a constructive morning meeting with a group of influential civil rights leaders. 

“There was nothing basically for or against. … Basically, everyone’s position was discussed,” Manchin told reporters after the meeting.

When asked if the meeting had shifted his position on the elections overhaul bill, he said: “No, I don’t think anybody changed positions on that.”

Manchin met with NAACP President Derrick Johnson, National Urban League President Marc Morial, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President Damon Hewitt, National Council of Negro Women President Johnnetta Betsch Cole, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights interim President Wade Henderson and The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation President Melanie Campbell. 

In a joint readout following the meeting, the civil rights leaders called both bills a “top priority” in light of the long list of state legislative proposals rolling back voting access, especially in the wake of the 2020 elections. 

“Specifically, the groups expressed their collective views on the need for Congress to pass both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” they said. 

Manchin described the meeting as a listening session in which everyone described their position.

“Everybody pretty much knows the importance of what we’re doing. And I’m very much concerned about our democracy, protecting people’s voting rights,” he said.

The civil rights groups also took aim at the filibuster, the Senate procedural tool that requires 60 votes to move most legislation. 

“The leaders also conveyed to Senator Manchin that a minority of senators must not be able to abuse the filibuster to impede much needed progress. Congress must act so all Americans have meaningful access to the ballot,” they said in the postmeeting readout.

Even if Manchin did vote for the Democrats’ top-priority elections bill, it would still face the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. Democrats had hoped for a united vote from their caucus that would put a spotlight on the legislative filibuster. 

Murkowski sponsored the voting rights bill in the last Congress, but it is doubtful that enough Republican senators would back that proposal to overcome a filibuster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came out against the voting rights bill at a news conference Tuesday, calling it “unnecessary.”

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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