Manchin quietly discusses Senate rules changes with Republicans

Politics

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks with reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Nov. 1, 2021 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (The Hill) – Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a key Democratic holdout on reforming the filibuster, is discussing small changes to Senate rules with Republicans.

Manchin’s discussions with GOP colleagues — which haven’t been previously reported — come as Democrats are trying to win over their conservative colleague on their push to “restore the Senate,” including making changes to the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

Members of GOP leadership told The Hill that Manchin had reached out to them to float potential ideas with an eye toward making it easier to get votes and bills to the floor.

“Most of us would argue that the only thing that it takes to get the Senate working better is behavioral change. … But he is trying to come up with some fairly, I would say, creative ideas about the rules,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Thune added that Manchin had spoken with other GOP senators and that there was a “considerable amount of interest in trying to make the Senate functional.” 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) confirmed that Manchin had also talked to him. 

“You know I had a lot of discussions with Schumer on this topic when he was the ranking member on Rules and I was the chairman and we could reopen that discussion,” he added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Manchin says he hasn’t changed his mind on the filibuster, where he’s opposed to nixing the 60-vote threshold altogether or making a carveout. But, asked by The Hill if he was open to smaller changes like making it easier to get amendment votes or bills to the floor, Manchin indicated that talks are ongoing. 

“I’ve been talking to Republicans and Democrats, how do we make the place work, so we can treat each other like human beings and try to get something accomplished and do the job we are supposed to do,” Manchin said. 

Manchin added that they were talking about “any rules that would basically help this place work.” 

The discussions involving Manchin and GOP senators come as a group of Democratic senators, tapped by Schumer, are trying to come up with rules change proposals that would help break the stalemate on voting rights and elections legislation, which has been filibustered by Republicans. 

Two Democratic senators taking part in the Democratic-only discussions — Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) — indicated that Manchin’s talks were a separate effort and said that they had not dispatched him to go talk with Republicans. 

“You know, Joe will be Joe. … We don’t control anybody around here,” Tester said. 

Thune floated that Manchin’s talks could be a back channel effort to dial down pressure on Democrats to make changes to the filibuster. 

“I think part of maybe his motivation too is just to take the pressure off of that and if we could get some things done that would make it more conducive to accomplishment then he wouldn’t feel, and others wouldn’t feel, as much pressure to nuke the filibuster,” Thune said. 

Frustration in the Senate has been growing among Democrats as they’ve seen some of their biggest priorities, including voting rights, stalled in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance most legislation. Though Schumer wants to pass voting rights this year, Democrats have acknowledged it could get kicked to at least January.

Even Republicans have vented about the chamber’s rules as they’ve seen debate on bipartisan bills, including a sweeping defense bill or China competitiveness legislation, dragged out for weeks by a small group of members.

Under the Senate’s rules, every member must agree to a floor vote, or doing so eats days of the Senate’s time. A single senator can slow down a court or administration nominee, block an amendment vote or force a measure to meet the 60-vote threshold. 

“There’s been casual discussions for some time,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told The Hill. “There aren’t that many things that they expect us to get done every single year, but we should be in a position to get those things done in a timely fashion.”

“I think there’s a lot of us that feel that way,” Rounds added about the frustration over the gridlock.

The talks aren’t the first time senators have tried to win bipartisan support for small changes to the Senate rules. Blunt chaired the Rules Committee when Schumer was the top Democrat on the panel in 2015 and 2016. And a bipartisan group was covering largely the same ground in talks earlier this year but those talks petered out without getting an agreement.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he hasn’t spoken to Manchin but acknowledged that the frustration over the gridlock leads to the chatter.

“There have been discussions about those issues as long as I’ve been here,” Cornyn said. “Everybody gets frustrated at different times by the rules that we operate under, which rather than foster full debate, which is what the Senate is supposed to do, seems to restrict debate and votes.” 

A growing number of Senate Democrats support nixing the 60-vote filibuster, arguing that it’s being abused by Republicans, though both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are opposed to doing so.

Schumer recently vented that a single GOP senator — Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — used Senate rules to block amendment votes on the defense bill. 

“It speaks to the need to restore the Senate and changes these rules,” Schumer said.

Some of the ideas being discussed by the Democratic-only group include changing the filibuster to require 41 “no” votes to block a bill rather than 60 “yes” votes to advance a bill or reverting to a talking filibuster. 

To change the rules with bipartisan support, senators typically need 67 votes. Republicans previously floated that they could make changes to how the Senate handles nominations with just 60 votes, though they ultimately invoked the “nuclear option” to force the changes through without Democratic support. 

Because Republicans are unlikely to support filibuster reform, Democrats would need to invoke the nuclear option, something Manchin has not previously supported and indicated to The Hill that he still doesn’t. 

“Everyone should be looking at how we make the place work better,” Manchin said. “We’ve had good conversations. We’ll see if something comes out of it. It should be done bipartisan.” 

Asked if he would support using the nuclear option, Manchin added: “I just said it should be bipartisan — why would you go nuclear option? … I’ve never voted for that. I’ve never voted for that, OK?”

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