Democratic pressure on Sens. Manchin and Sinema to alter filibuster rules is not working

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

As I pointed out Saturday, Democratic negotiations over the Build Back Better bill seem to be going backwards, with Sen. Manchin having apparently taken is $1.8 trillion offer off the table. Rather than continue to beat their collective heads against the wall on BBB, Dems are instead shifting focus to a voting bill. But because that bill would not be passed through reconciliation, Democrats would need to first bypass a potential filibuster in order to pass it. Is that likely to happen?

Axios reported yesterday that Democrats have so far not been about to move Sen. Manchin at all.

President Biden, Democratic leaders and their emissaries are trying to convince Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to pass a sweeping federal elections bill with a menu of filibuster alternatives. The problem is speaking with him is “like negotiating via Etch A Sketch,” sources with direct knowledge of his recent meetings tell Axios.

“You think you’re just about there. You think you’ve got an agreement on most of the things and it’s settling in. And then you come back the next morning and you’re starting from scratch,” said the one source who made the Etch A Sketch analogy.

Axios reports that Sens. Angus King, Jon Tester and Tim Kaine have been tasked with dragging Manchin across the line on this bill because they are old friends. But despite several meetings, so far nothing has changed. An aide to one of the senators told Axios that Manchin’s problem is that he “listens to everybody.” So after moving him toward some kind of filibuster change, Manchin will talk to someone else and then the negotiations are back to square one.

Over at National Review, Charles Cooke makes a good point about all of this. Is it really Sen. Manchin who is behaving like an etch-a-sketch here?

Who is the Etch A Sketch in this scenario? Is it Joe Manchin, who has given the same answer on the filibuster every time he’s been asked for a whole year, or is it the media, which forgets this and asks him every single day as if the question is new, and the Democratic party, which knows full well what Manchin thinks on a whole host of questions but keeps pretending that it won’t matter in the end?

I think it would be more accurate to say Democrats are frustrated because Manchin isn’t acting like and etch-a-sketch at all. If you bump an etch-a-sketch hard enough it erases the image. But Sen. Manchin isn’t like that. Democrats have been bumping and shaking him for months at this point and the image has not changed or if it has momentarily it keeps reverting back to the same thing he said at the start.

In any case, Axios points out that even if Democrats manage to twist Sen. Manchin’s arm they still have a serious problem.

One Senate Democrat who spoke last week with Sinema, at length, about voting rights told Axios she’s a bigger challenge to altering Senate rules than Manchin.

“There is no movement from the position that she articulated in a Washington Post editorial,” the senator said. The headline read: “We have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster.”

Putting aside this particular issue, there’s a pragmatic reason for Sen. Sinema not to change her stance at this point. If she rolls over now it will be that much harder to take her “no” seriously in the future. Democrats will assume they can roll over her on anything if they generate enough pressure to do so which pretty much guarantees her life will become a series of unpleasant pressure campaigns. You might say becoming an etch-a-sketch guarantees a public life full of hard knocks.

On the other hand, if Sinema sticks to her public statement about the filibuster then it will take the wind out of the sails of her opponents. No one keeps beating their head against a brick wall indefinitely.