Whoa: Manchin open to using reconciliation to pass voting-rights bill?

This is a big deal if he means it, but it’s unclear if he means it. Watch the clip below, noting that Chuck Todd asks him specifically about using reconciliation to pass “election-only bills like H.R. 1.” That’s the “For the People Act,” Democrats’ massive voting-rights reform bill, their absolute top legislative priority before the midterms. Right now it looks dead on arrival in the Senate because, like all non-budgetary bills, it’s subject to filibuster rules requiring 60 votes for cloture. And there’s no way Democrats will find 10 Republican votes to help them get over that hump.

But … what if Dems bent the rules so that even a non-budgetary bill like H.R. 1 was subject to reconciliation, exempting it from the filibuster? Because reconciliation procedures are supposed to apply only to budgetary matters, the Senate parliamentarian would surely rule that reconciliation doesn’t apply. But the parliamentarian’s opinion is advisory; it can be overruled by the Senate’s presiding officer. The question is whether Manchin would be willing to vote yes on a bill under those circumstances. Last month he said he wouldn’t, that he’d follow the so-called “Byrd rule” that keeps non-budgetary matters (like raising the minimum wage”) out of bills that are subject to reconciliation.

He sounds more ambivalent now, though.

Note that Manchin himself never mentions using reconciliation for H.R. 1 in the clip. It’s Todd who brings it up. But this would have been a fine opportunity for Manchin to reaffirm his commitment to the Byrd rule — and he conspicuously avoids doing so. Is the Dems’ voting-rights package suddenly viable?

The pressure being put on him by the left to find a way around the filibuster in order to pass H.R. 1 is tremendous. They were angry that he wouldn’t budge on it in the name of hiking the minimum wage (although Manchin would have voted no anyway on the bill raising the wage to $15 per hour, preferring an $11 alternative). But they’ll be apoplectic if their voting-rights legislation goes down in flames for procedural reasons. James Clyburn, one of the most influential black Democrats in the country, warned Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in an interview today that H.R. 1’s failure would be “catastrophic” and that Dems will know whom to blame.

“There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 that we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights. That just ain’t gonna happen. That would be catastrophic,” he said. “If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”

“I’m not going to say that you must get rid of the filibuster. I would say you would do well to develop a Manchin-Sinema rule on getting around the filibuster as it relates to race and civil rights,” Clyburn said…

“You can’t filibuster the budget,” Clyburn said. “That’s why we have reconciliation rules. We need to have civil and voting rights reconciliation. That should have had reconciliation permission a long, long time ago.”

That’s exactly what Todd proposes. And Manchin doesn’t flatly tell him no. Hmmm.

He was asked about the filibuster in another interview this morning and floated a second possibility for weakening the rule. The filibuster should be “painful,” he allowed, not something the out-party invokes as a matter of course to block legislation. He’s open to old-fashioned “talking filibusters” in which a member of the minority can slow down a bill by speaking at great length on the Senate floor:

Chuck Schumer’s former spokesman, now the head of a lefty activist group, sounded pretty jazzed about that:

Democrats will happily live with a system in which the GOP can retard the pace at which bills are passed but not ultimately prevent them from passing. Is that what Manchin has in mind? The number of his colleagues that support filibuster reform is getting larger by the day. Maybe they’re finally starting to wear him down, at least on hugely consequential bills like H.R. 1.

He paid extensive lip service during his TV appearances this morning to the proposition that he’ll never get rid of the filibuster, stressing how important it is that the majority hear from the minority on legislation. But both of the workarounds he flirted with would end up doing that in practice. Something called “the filibuster” would remain but its core function of preventing the majority from passing bills without 60 votes for cloture would be eviscerated. A “talking filibuster” would be merely a delaying tactic. And a tweak to the reconciliation rules that allowed certain non-budgetary bills to be passed with 50 votes would effectively nuke the filibuster without formally doing so. If voting-rights bills are so important that they can be passed that way, eventually Dems will insist that gun-control bills and amnesty bills are similarly important. The GOP will naturally come up with its own list of important agenda items that should be subject to reconciliation rules instead of the filibuster (like repealing H.R. 1) once it returned to power.

And so the “exception” to reconciliation made for the Dems’ voting-rights bill would inevitably swallow the rule. The filibuster would remain on the books but it would be unusable whenever the majority wanted to get one of its top priorities through.

Manchin will doubtless be pressed further on this in other interviews this week and will have to clarify his position on the “Byrd rule.” As will Sinema, of course. She’s ruled out eliminating the filibuster too, so even if Manchin bends on using reconciliation for non-budgetary bills, Dems are still stuck unless Sinema goes along. Will she?