Joe Manchin’s Silent Partners in the Senate

The West Virginian doesn’t mind taking most of the flack for killing filibuster reform. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/AP/Shutterstock

In 2017, the day after Senate Republicans nuked the last vestiges of the presidential-appointments filibuster in order to place Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court, Senators Susan Collins and Chris Coons released a letter signed by them and 59 of their colleagues opposing any future move to get rid of the remaining filibuster against legislation not otherwise protected from the dilatory tactic (mostly budget-reconciliation bills that, by design, only require simple majorities). Altogether, 32 of the signatories were Democrats. Their numbers included now–Vice-President Kamala Harris, now–President Pro Tem Pat Leahy, future presidential candidates Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar, and liberal icons Sherrod Brown, Mazie Hirono, and Brian Schatz. Of those 32 filibuster-loving Democrats, 28 (counting Harris as Senate president) are still in the Senate, where they were joined by the filibuster-loving Arizonan Kyrsten Sinema in 2019.

I mention that recent letter by way of expressing zero surprise at the revelation by the Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey that there are other Democrats who partially (or perhaps wholly) share Joe Manchin’s high-profile opposition to filibuster reform but are “hiding behind” him as a sort of designated flak-catcher. Some, like Sinema, are in plain view. Others, like Diane Feinstein of California, Maggie Hasan of New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Sinema’s Arizona colleague Mark Kelly, have been ambivalent about it.

Sure, some Democrats have more-or-less abandoned publicly defending the filibuster (notably 2020 presidential candidates Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, and Klobuchar). And according to Brodey, at least two “centrists” who used to be in that camp, Jon Tester of Montana, and Angus King of Maine, have modified their positions to the extent of favoring a exemption for voting-rights legislation. That seems to be where Jacky Rosen of Nevada, who wasn’t in the Senate in 2017, is as well.

Others are still in the weeds. And yes, they do benefit from Machin taking the heat from angry filibuster reformers. Why is he suffering almost alone for their common sins against progressivism and an easier path for the Biden agenda? Why he is unmoved by the criticism he is now receiving from Biden himself? It’s pretty simple, as I explained recently: “Biden won 29.7 percent of the vote in Manchin’s state last year. The West Virginian would probably pay cash money to secure as much criticism from the White House as possible.” If any colleagues offered to share the opprobrium with him, Manchin would probably say “Thanks, but no thanks!”

It is an entirely separate matter as to whether any of Manchin’s silent Democratic partners on Team Save the Filibuster would continue to lurk if he exposed them by changing his own position, as Brodey notes:

Among those whose job it is to influence lawmakers, it’s widely understood that Manchin is almost never on an island. When Manchin speaks, said one lobbyist for a major D.C. firm, “everyone’s ears perk up.”

“He represents not just a significant swing vote,” this lobbyist said. “He represents a handful of the party.”

For now, though, Manchin is happy to be the center of attention, and some of his colleagues are happy he’s there to soak up the praise of professional bipartisans and the ire of many Democrats.

Joe Manchin’s Silent Partners in the Senate