The Democratic Senators Hiding Behind Joe Manchin

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Drew Angerer/Getty
Drew Angerer/Getty

It was March 5, right before the Senate’s doomed vote to raise the minimum wage to $15, and, as usual, Sen. Joe Manchin was the center of attention.

But there was no need for reporters to swarm the West Virginia moderate. On that day, he was far from the only Democrat who’d give the thumbs-down to a progressive priority. Seven other Democratic senators would vote the same way—and draw far less recognition or criticism.

That tally surprised observers outside the U.S. Capitol building, but few within it.

Manchin may find himself nationally relevant, and widely loathed on the left, for his willingness to buck mainstream positions within the Democratic Party. But over the years, Senate insiders have developed a view that on the toughest and thorniest issues, Manchin isn’t only speaking for himself; there’s usually a handful of senators who agree with him, quietly, and are happy to let him take the heat.

Which senators are counted within this category changes based on the issue or vote at hand. The minimum wage vote provided a rare, clear look at how Manchin can be a tip of a Senate Democratic iceberg on a key issue.

But exactly who’s aligned with him, even discreetly, on another consequential question—whether to end the legislative filibuster—is less clear. Only one other Democrat, Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), has been as strident about keeping the Senate’s 60-vote threshold as Manchin. A handful of others, such as Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), have sounded concerned notes or have avoided answering the question entirely.

Some Democrats look at that and argue that Manchin, who has defiantly insisted he will not gut the filibuster under any circumstances, is publicly voicing concerns that this group agrees with privately.

“There are other Democratic members who share his reservations about eliminating the filibuster,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who strongly differs with Manchin on the issue. “Perhaps they’re less outspoken, and perhaps less vehement.”

Even staunch progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), desperate to see the filibuster go, understand that Manchin isn’t alone in his support for a 60-vote threshold.

“It’s something of a symbiotic relationship,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “There are certainly more senators with reservations about the filibuster that are giving Manchin steam to stay firm. But I have also heard from colleagues that none of those other senators want to play Manchin’s role.”

Ocasio-Cortez continued that, if Manchin or Sinema folded, she believed those other senators would come around to eliminating the filibuster as well. “That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be pressed for their position and offer clarity to their constituents, though,” she said of the senators letting Manchin do the talking. “People deserve to know with clarity where their elected representation stands on the filibuster.”

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.”

There is also a belief among both Democrats and Republicans that Manchin’s current status as a black hole of left-wing outrage and media attention spares these other senators from the same treatment. A Democratic aide told The Daily Beast in a May story on Manchin that a lot of members are “happy Joe Manchin is the tip of the spear, getting shot at every day. Seven or eight of them stand behind him.”

A former colleague of Manchin’s, former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), put it another way recently. “He is the heat shield for other members of the Senate that also are reluctant to blow up the protections the minority has from stopping bad stuff the other party wants,” she said on MSNBC on Tuesday.

That heat shield is especially valuable for senators facing tough elections in 2022. Take, for instance, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH). She voted with Manchin on the minimum wage and has been publicly cool toward ending the filibuster. And yet, the Beltway hardly hinges on her every word. Far from the dozen reporters that encircle Manchin in the Capitol hallways, Hassan glides through the Senate basement without any reporters trailing her—and she’s hardly ever a target of the left’s Twitter scorn.

But the GOP’s embrace of 2020 election conspiracies and measures to curtail voting access is forcing a change in this dynamic. Sen. Angus King (I-ME), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, had been seen as quietly aligned with Manchin on the filibuster. However, when The Daily Beast asked King on Tuesday if Manchin reflected the views of a broader group of senators, he responded by reiterating his reluctance to break the 60-vote threshold.

“But I’m very worried about voting rights,” King added. “And if it’s a question of voting rights versus a Senate rule, democracy wins, for me.”

That qualification, which Manchin has not made, may leave him increasingly alone within the caucus, no longer the bellwether of colleagues who might have nodded approvingly with every quote or interview in which he punctures the dreams of the party base. But the strength of his objections to ending the filibuster or supporting S.1, Democrats’ marquee election reform bill, have some in the party convinced more than ever he’s not freelancing.

“I’m fully bought into the idea that he’s just a proxy for, like, five or six other senators who feel the same way,” said a Democratic source, expressing the frustration of many in the party.

Like many tricky bits of Hill conventional wisdom, it’s hard to get senators talking on the record about the theory of a Manchin shadow caucus. Several Democrats declined to talk about it when approached by The Daily Beast. Asked if Manchin reflected the views of others in the caucus, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the party’s second-in-command, offered a short answer: “I don’t know.”

King only slightly expanded on that answer when asked the same question. “I don’t know, because I don’t know what other people feel,” he said, noting that Sinema was also quite vocal with her concerns about the filibuster. “I think there are others as well.”

Indeed, Sinema is a major exception. She’s hardly quiet about her views, and is beginning to approach Manchin levels of notoriety in the Democratic base for her willingness to disappoint them. The Arizona Democrat is far more press-averse than her colleague from West Virginia, but when she does speak, she tends to have the same effect.

A comment Sinema gave in April, for example, continues to fuel outraged tweets from liberal commentators as the GOP filibusters the party’s agenda. “When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”

Sinema is also considered closest to Manchin in another way: Many Democrats feel they are equally committed to the filibuster in a way that others are not. “Other senators might be behind Manchin and Sinema, but if they budge on the filibuster, they’re all going with them,” said a former aide to a moderate Democratic senator. “None of them are going to be the last ones standing.”

A handful of roll call votes this year shows how the scrutiny on Manchin or Sinema can obscure broader shared sentiments in the caucus. In March, the six Democrats who joined Manchin and Sinema in voting against a $15 minimum wage were Sens. King, Hassan, Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Jon Tester (D-MT).

As Democrats worked to pass their $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, Republicans forced dozens of symbolic votes designed to put vulnerable Democrats in tough political positions. Manchin had company on a few. A slightly different group of seven joined Manchin in voting for a GOP resolution to block stimulus checks from going to undocumented immigrants: Sens. Sinema, Hassan, Tester, Kelly, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), and Gary Peters (D-MI). All did ultimately vote to strip that resolution from the final bill.

But it’s the issues where no votes have yet been cast—election reform and the filibuster—where there’s growing interest in who may be drafting in Manchin’s wake.

A handful of Democratic senators have simply skirted the question of whether to change the 60-vote threshold in order to enact the party’s agenda. Most are up for re-election in 2022 and are navigating tricky balancing acts in their home states, where a Manchin-style stiff-arming of the left could spell trouble in a primary, but where moderation has been a winning general election strategy.

Kelly, who was elected in 2020 and faces Arizona voters again next year, has not said definitively what his stance on the filibuster is, telling reporters this week that he would “evaluate any change to our rules, regardless of what they are, based on what’s in the best interest of Arizona, and the best interest of our country.”

Hassan, a top target for Republicans looking to flip a Democratic seat, has said she has “concerns” about getting rid of the 60-vote threshold. Shaheen, who won re-election in 2020, has previously said the filibuster should be reformed, but has quietly avoided taking a hard line since Democrats took the Senate and White House in January.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), also a GOP target in 2022, has embraced a middle ground that Manchin himself has opened the door to: supporting the “talking filibuster,” a proposal to make filibustering more painful by requiring senators to fill up debate time with actual debate.

Meanwhile, S.1—the bill that many Democrats believe is worth breaking or changing the filibuster rule to pass—does not have Manchin’s support. He announced on Sunday that he will vote no on the legislation, sparking yet another round of Manchin-inspired groans on the left. But privately, some of his colleagues are said to be uneasy with the bill, Politico reported on Tuesday. And by zooming in on the bill’s parts, it’s clear Manchin is not isolated in his misgivings.

Take statehood for the District of Columbia, which is included in S.1. Manchin was the first Democrat to come out against a separate statehood bill, S.51, which now has 46 Democratic co-sponsors. The holdouts are Manchin, Kelly, Sinema, and King.

Among those pushing for passage of S.1 or an end to the filibuster, there’s a sense that the tide is shifting away from Manchin. King is not the only moderate to say recently that he’d jettison the filibuster if it meant protecting voting rights. Tester, a friend and ally of Manchin’s, has done the same.

On Wednesday, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) gave an interview to the Washington Post in which she expressed reluctance toward ending the filibuster—though afterward, her office clarified that she’d support taking that step if it meant passing S.1.

Many of these questions are set to come to a head this summer, when the Senate will vote on the sweeping voting package.

“There’s a few members who have been quiet on this,” said Eli Zupnick, a former Senate aide who’s now spokesperson for the anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate. “The assumption and hope is they’d be on board where the caucus lands when push comes to shove.”

Roll call votes will put those senators who are less eager than Manchin for the attention, and the scrutiny, closer to the spotlight. As will continued discussion of the West Virginia senator’s “heat shield” status.

For now, though, a dozen or more reporters routinely swarm Manchin on his way to the Senate floor each day, while simpatico low-key lawmakers slip by. Republican onlookers—who might like to see a little more scrutiny on them—have no choice but to shrug.

“I suspect, both on the rules issue, and a lot of the legislative issues, that it’s more than just Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). “But they’ve been willing to stand up and take a position.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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