Will Manchin turn against the filibuster if the Senate GOP blocks the January 6 commission?

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

For once, the question posed in the headline isn’t hypothetical. We’re going to have an answer soon because this Politico story makes clear that the bill that passed the House a few days ago is DOA in the Senate. Never mind that it was negotiated by John Katko, the ranking Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Never mind that it ended up winning 35 Republican votes.

Before Mitch McConnell came out against it, it seemed to have a fighting chance of drawing 10 Republicans in the Senate. Now that McConnell’s opposed it, not even Mitt Romney is a surefire yes. It’s dead.

Which puts ol’ Joe Manchin in a spot. Manchin’s taken withering fire from progressives for months for refusing to budge in his support for the filibuster. Compromise isn’t impossible, he’s told them. Republicans aren’t the enemy. We can find mutually agreeable solutions if we just work at it. Leftists have called him a chump for believing that the GOP is anything other than a resolutely obstructionist entity, but he’s stood firm.

And now here are Republicans preparing to use a filibuster for the very first time during the Biden presidency to tank a bipartisan investigation of a Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol aimed at overturning the election.

Manchin isn’t hiding his distress. He does look like a chump today. “If this bill can’t get 10 Republican votes in the Senate, then what are the odds that any Democratic compromise on any policy legislation can possibly get to 10?” asked Jonathan Last yesterday. Manchin’s wondering the same thing. Maybe the GOP will end up rescuing him by agreeing to a deal with Biden on infrastructure, which would prove Manchin’s theory that compromise is still possible. But if that deal falls apart and Republicans end prioritizing their partisan interests over national interests by blocking the commission bill, Manchin’s dream of dealmaking and civic harmony will have been exposed as a gross delusion.

What does he do then?

Now that McConnell is pushing his conference toward a filibuster of a bipartisan bill, Democrats see an opportunity to begin making their case to reluctant members that the 60-vote status quo is unsustainable.

As an incredulous Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) put it: “How do you go forward if you can’t make it work over something like an independent commission?”

“That’s their problem. They can prove how difficult life is with the filibuster if they’re not careful,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. “When the filibuster is actually used, it becomes an exhibit in the case against continuing it.”…

“So disheartening. It makes you really concerned about our country,” Manchin said. Asked if that is an abuse of the filibuster: “I’m still praying we’ve still got 10 good solid patriots within that conference.”

If it turns out they don’t have “10 good solid patriots,” does Manchin decide that compromise was a fool’s errand and opt to go nuclear after all? Electoral forecasters are all but unanimous in believing that the GOP’s a heavy favorite to take back the House next fall. That means Democrats have a little under 20 months to get Biden’s agenda through. Should Manchin conclude that he’s been a sucker to think the GOP might negotiate, the ticking clock could conceivably convince him to drop the filibuster after all and let his party pass whatever it can pass before it’s turned out of power for several years.

Or, of course, he could endorse a “tactical nuclear” option in which a special exception to the filibuster is made for, say, blue-ribbon commissions. We already have filibuster exceptions for presidential nominees. Why not for independent bipartisan bodies appointed by Congress to conduct special investigations? Then they could pass the House bill with 50 votes.

It would be in the GOP’s interest, in other words, to throw Manchin a bone soon to prove to the left that he was right about compromise. It doesn’t need to be on the commission bill — they could still make a deal on infrastructure — but filibustering the commission would be an unusually glaring statement that the two sides can’t see eye to eye on anything anymore, including the need to investigate how a mob ended up invading their own workplace in hopes of lynching the vice president.

Reporter Haley Byrd Wilt went to the Capitol yesterday to ask Senate Republicans a simple question. What is it about the House bill that you object to, specifically? What would you like to see in there that isn’t there now? She found that many of them seemed not to know the contents at all even though it’s only 19 pages long, based heavily on the 9/11 Commission bill, and will be voted on as soon as next week. Whether they were honestly ignorant or just professing ignorance because they have no good-faith substantive argument against the bill is unclear. After all, many of these same people routinely claimed they hadn’t read Trump’s latest inflammatory tweets during his presidency whenever reporters cornered them about those.

But Wilt couldn’t help noticing that some of Republicans’ biggest alleged problems with the bill — specifically, how it’s “biased” towards Democrats — aren’t actually in the bill:

In interviews with more than 20 GOP senators on Thursday, Republicans raised fears about how the commission would work, how long it would last, and whether it would amount to a partisan circus. The answers to many of these questions are in the text of the relatively straightforward, 19-page bill passed by the House this week. When pressed on the gap between the details of the bill and their portrayal of it, some senators simply admitted they hadn’t read the legislation

Rubio’s concern that the commission will issue political subpoenas is addressed by the legislation: The commission would be evenly divided, with five members appointed by Democratic leaders and five appointed by Republican leaders. For Democrats to issue any subpoena, at least one of the five Republican members would have to agree to it. This was a key demand from GOP leaders—that their appointees would essentially have the power to veto subpoenas. That massive concession from Democrats hasn’t made much of an impression on Republican senators, though…

It also has a December 31, 2021 deadline for a final report—ensuring it wouldn’t drop in the thick of the 2022 midterm elections.

The only obvious tweak that could make it more palatable to Republicans, Wilt argued, would be if GOP members could hire their own staff without needing approval by the Democratic chairperson. But otherwise, the GOP and John Katko got what they wanted from negotiations.

So why can’t they find 10 Senate Republicans to support it? Remember, an investigation’s going to happen one way or another. If the commission bill tanks, Pelosi will form a select committee in the House to pursue this. Unlike the commission, the select committee won’t have a New Year’s Eve deadline. It could run into next year, complicating the GOP’s midterm campaign. It might also be bipartisan to boost its credibility, assuming people like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are willing to serve on it and Pelosi’s willing to appoint them. The Senate GOP can’t thwart congressional action about January 6 simply by spiking the commission, in other words. And even if it could, Trump himself is destined to keep the issue of the election and insurrection front and center by hammering his “I was robbed” message at rallies and on the primary trail next year.

The only thing the GOP gains by blocking the commission is that, by forcing Pelosi to do a select committee instead, they’ll make it easier to argue later that the committee’s findings were a “partisan witch hunt.” Which is what you’d do if your goal was to run interference for the insurrectionists by finding some grounds to discredit an attempt to hold them accountable.

I’ll leave you with Joe Scarborough, who had a few extra Red Bulls this morning before work.