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Up in Smoke: Biden’s Agenda Stymied by Contrary Senators

As the weeks passed this spring, two ostensibly Democratic senators discovered the thrill of power. They realized they have Joe Biden's presidency in their hands. They are not about to let go.

After signaling for weeks his opposition to scuttling the filibuster, West Virginia's Joe Manchin has now announced by way of an op-ed in the
Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin
the state's Charleston Gazette-Mail that neither will he vote for the For the People Act, the measure that would set down basic standards against the corruption of federal elections, finding it too partisan and containing extraneous add-ons that "don't pertain to voting". He wrote, “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy", he wrote, "and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act.”

There are reportedly other Democrats of the same view, but who realize that this is a make or break bill to counter the highly partisan election laws working their way through Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country, laws engineered to make voting difficult for certain Democratic groups, and worse, a new outbreak of provisions that allows legislatures to hand elections to Republicans even when the party loses. The president has lashed out against what states are doing as “un-American” and “an assault on democracy”. And Manchin, after 147 Republicans attempted to end democracy on January 6th by voting against certifying the states' election results, now chooses to allow the Republicans to block the Democratic agenda. His parochial view seems blind to the consequences beyond the Senate, that his self-absorption will put the nation's democracy again at serious risk.

Biden has no margin in the Senate. For a Democrat-proposed bill to pass in a thoroughly partisan Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris must step in to break 50-50 ties. Yet the president floats enormous spending proposals as if the word hasn't gotten through that they don't stand a chance. Allowing the filibuster to stand will block all that Biden hopes to accomplish because he cannot expect a single Republican vote in the Senate.

defectors

Allying with Manchin in strong opposition to the filibuster is is on again off again Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Included in Biden's national recovery plan are a couple of measures that could be passed by so-called reconciliation, a rule that provides that bills affecting money and the budget cannot be filibustered lest the operation of the government be disrupted, and need only 51 votes to pass. But Ms Sinema is said to be skeptical of even simple majority passage, concerned that legislation passed by one party can be overturned when the legislature changes hands.

The obvious seems unapparent to Sinema, that in today's rigid polarization, indulging her principles to vote against close bills means nothing passes. No action leaves in place what her party had hoped to fix.

For Manchin, ending the filibuster would "be to destroy our government". In April, he declared emphatically to The Washington Post, "There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster". In his op-ed he wrote, "Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen”.

Sinema, in office for a year and a half, says:

"The filibuster…was created as a tool to bring together members of different parties to find compromise and coalition...where you protect the rights of the minority from the majority regardless of which party is in the majority at the time".

As for "created as a tool", the filibuster was not devised "to bring together members of different parties". It came into being by accident, when it was realized there were no means in the Constitution to end debate on a bill, and the Constitution is distinctly majoritarian — a simple majority was all that was intended in either House or Senate to pass a bill. That there are a couple of provisions in the Constitution calling for super majorities — for overriding a veto, for impeachment conviction, e.g. — make clear that the absence of any such proviso for the passage of legislation was deliberate.

A Data for Progress poll in February reported that 61% of of likely Arizona voters say passing major bills is a high priority, while just 26% say it's more important to preserve Senate traditions. But representing her constituents may not be Sinema's mission. Bloomberg quotes Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist in Phoenix, who thinks she is working on the "maverick" image of an Arizona senator who preceded her, John McCain. She even skipped out on the vote for the commission to investigate the January 6th insurrection.

At a separate moment, Ms Sinema went on,

"To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and 'X,' I say, this is a false choice. The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively…the way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior."

Time is running short for her to change Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's behavior. Just as his declared mission in 2009 was to make Obama a one-term president, McConnell said,

"One hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration. What we have in the United States Senate is total unity from Susan Collins to Ted Cruz in opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.”

By supporting continuance of the filibuster, the two senators honor a practice that came into prominent use by southern Democrats to block civil rights legislation. It took Republican votes to overcome the filibuster waged by the racist bloc in the Democrats own party in order to pass the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

In this century it has become used to such a degree that merely the threat of a filibuster — which in earlier days meant standing in the well of the Senate and talking for hours from dusk to dawn until enough votes could be mustered to end debate — serves to halt a bill in its tracks without any debate at all.

The blunt fact is that, contrary to Sinema's "work[ing] together to find a compromise", the filibuster hands control of the Senate to the party that lost the election. It equips the opposition party to thwart everything put forth by the party the voters chose to lead.

But Manchin and Sinema will vote against their party's goals when it comes time to strike down a practice that is not in the Constitution, not followed by any state, exists nowhere else on Earth, in which the other 195 or so countries have sensibly shown no interest.

In the process the duo will doom everything the party to which they nominally belong hopes to achieve under Joe Biden. With the filibuster left in his pocket, McConnell will run the Senate. Nothing will move forward.

The fallout goes further. Manchin and Sinema will give a big boost to Republicans winning the House and Senate in the 2022 elections because with McConnell wielding the filibuster, Democrats won't have anything to show for their two years. The two play right into the hands of McConnell, whose creed is to block all legislation and then, come an election, tell voters that the opposition has accomplished nothing and should be removed from office.

On a trip to Tulsa for the commemoration of the city's 1921 massacre, the president is waking up to his dire predicament. Asked about legislative progress, he said,

"I hear all the folks on TV saying, 'Why doesn't Biden get this done?' Well, because Biden only has a majority of, effectively, four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends."

That is not accurate, but Biden's anger is justified.

Manchin has said he will vote for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill parallel to the For the People Act that would restore the rule that states need "preclearance" from the civil rights division of the Justice Department to change certain voting laws, a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court’s conservative myopia struck down in 2013, one of the court's worst blunders for its unleashing so many of the states' restrictive laws. When John Dickerson of CBS asked Manchin why Republicans would vote for this law, given that it could restrict them in their state elections, Manchin replied, “If we can’t come to an agreement on that, God help us, John”. God? How about you, Joe? What will your principle be when 10 Republicans do not show up to make the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster against that law? Which will you stand for, voting rights or the filibuster, there being no two ways.

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