Politics & Policy

In Private Call with Donors, Manchin Praises Proposal to Weaken Filibuster

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) talks to reporters as he departs the U.S. Capitol after a vote in the Senate, June 10, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Two months ago, Manchin vowed not to ‘eliminate or weaken the filibuster.’ Will he break that promise now?

West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has repeatedly vowed over the last nine months that he won’t weaken the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But in private comments to donors published by The Intercept on Wednesday, Manchin said a proposal to change the 60-vote rule to a 55-vote rule is one of the many “good suggestions” he’s received:

“That’s that’s one of many good, good suggestions I’ve had,” he said of lowering the cloture total from 60 to 55. Manchin went on to discuss the last time the cloture threshold was lowered, in the 1970s.

“I looked back . . . when it went from 67 votes to 60 votes, and also what was happening, what made them think that it needed to change. So I’m open to looking at it, I’m just not open to getting rid of the filibuster, that’s all,” he said.

Manchin acknowledged that publicly he had drawn a line at 60, but said that he was open to other ideas. “Right now, 60 is where I planted my flag, but as long as they know that I’m going to protect this filibuster, we’re looking at good solutions,” he said. “I think, basically, it should be [that] 41 people have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in the affirmative. So find 41 in the negative. . . . I think one little change that could be made right now is basically anyone who wants to filibuster ought to be required to go to the floor and basically state your objection and why you’re filibustering and also state what you think needs to change that’d fix it, so you would support it. To me, that’s pretty constructive.”

Manchin’s private comments leave at least one important question unanswered: Would he be willing to use the “nuclear option” in order to lower the threshold to 55 votes or make any other changes to the Senate filibuster?

The Standing Rules of the Senate state that “two-thirds of the Senators present and voting” must vote to cut off debate on a motion or measure to change the rules. If all senators are present, and Manchin wants to follow the rules of the Senate, that means it would effectively take 67 votes to make any change to the filibuster.

But if the “nuclear option” were employed, a simple majority of the Senate could set a precedent contrary to the written rules. And if Manchin isn’t willing to go nuclear, then all his talk about entertaining changes to the filibuster is academic, because there won’t be 17 Republican votes to join 50 Democrats to change the Senate rules.

When Manchin raised the possibility this spring of changing the Senate rules to require a “talking filibuster,” I asked him whether he would be willing to implement such a change via a simple majority vote or if he thought it should take two-thirds of the Senate. Manchin didn’t directly answer the question, but he repeatedly pointed to Rule XXII of the Standing Rules — the source of the two-thirds threshold for changing the mechanics of the filibuster — and said, “Let’s just use the rules we already have.”

Whatever his present stance on the nuclear option, however, the fact that Manchin has cracked the door open even slightly to changing the Senate’s 60-vote rule to a 55-vote rule is remarkable by itself.

Before voters went to the polls in Georgia to determine control of the Senate, Manchin went on Fox News to tell viewers and Georgia voters that he was “absolutely” committed to keeping the filibuster and the 60-vote rule.

“I commit to you tonight and I commit to all of your viewers and everyone else that’s watching, I want to lay those fears, I want to rest those fears for you right now,” Manchin said. “I will not vote to pack the courts, and I would not vote to end the filibuster.”

Manchin’s pledge was firm: “I’m the only Democrat senator that has voted against the . . . nuclear option that Harry Reid did in 2013, and I voted against the nuclear option when Mitch McConnell did it in 2017. . . . I thought we should be working together. It should take a minimum of 60 [votes].”

Manchin repeated his pledge to back the 60-vote rule in January, after Democrats won control of the Senate, and then again in a Washington Post op-ed in April. “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” he wrote.

If Manchin now wants to lower the threshold for overcoming a filibuster to 55 votes, he will have to break that promise.


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