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Manchin: Primary me if you want, I won’t go ‘nuclear’

Joe Manchin made clear that his party’s push to isolate him and fellow centrist Kyrsten Sinema won’t force his hand on rules changes, once again rejecting Democrats’ proposed reforms to the Senate’s filibuster rules.

The West Virginia Democrat actually seems to welcome the isolation. He told reporters ahead of a Democratic Caucus meeting he would not go along with instituting a talking filibuster, which could be used to evade the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, nor would he entertain a rules change by a simple majority.

Asked about his party’s priorities, Manchin said people are most worried about inflation and coronavirus right now. He added that he’d welcome a primary challenge over his filibuster position if he runs again for reelection: “I’ve been primaried my entire life. That would not be anything new for me.”

“The majority of my colleagues in the Democratic caucus have changed their minds. I respect that. They have a right to change their minds. I haven’t. I hope they respect that too. I’ve never changed my mind on the filibuster,” Manchin said.

Though all 50 Senate Democrats support the voting and elections bill before the Senate, the Democratic caucus is pressing forward with laying blame on Manchin and Sinema (D-Ariz.) for the party’s failure to advance sweeping elections reform, thanks to their resistance to weakening the filibuster. The move carries considerable risk, given that Sinema and Manchin will be essential to any further success the party can muster this year — particularly on any resuscitation of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda.

Manchin said he doesn’t “take anything personally” as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer presses forward with a vote on weakening the filibuster. Schumer confirmed to reporters after the meeting that he would propose a talking filibuster only covering the package of bills currently in front of the Senate and dismissed Manchin and Sinema’s positions as out of step with the rest of the caucus.

“The vast majority of our caucus strongly disagree with Sens. Manchin and Sinema on rules changes. The overwhelming majority of our caucus knows that if you’re going to try to rely on Republican votes, you will get zero progress on voting rights,” Schumer said.

Schumer also would not say if he would support Manchin and Sinema in future Democratic primaries: “I’m not getting into the politics. This is a substantive, serious issue.” Sinema in particular could face a tough intra-party challenge in 2024.

The Senate Democratic caucus huddled on Tuesday evening to discuss the coming confrontation over changing chamber rules to help shore up the Voting Rights Act and enact federal election standards. During the meeting, Manchin “expressed disagreement” with the justification his party is using to change Senate rules, according to one attendee.

Under the talking filibuster proposed by Schumer, the voting and elections package would only require a simple majority to advance toward final passage, preceded by a lengthy debate. No further bills would get the same treatment; the Senate took up the election reform bill Tuesday and is expected to begin the rules debate on Wednesday.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has been speaking to Manchin on rules changes, said Democrats have tried to come up with a proposal that’s consistent with his and Sinema’s positions and that they aren’t worried the vote will alienate the two centrists.

“I was not a negotiator of the infrastructure bill — I was so happy they were, and I praised them for it, and I voted for it, and it’s going to be great,” Kaine said. “This voting bill is as important or more to many of us than the infrastructure bill. The time is nigh for a decision.”

Last week both Manchin and Sinema emphatically rejected weakening the filibuster, even as Biden came to the Senate to try and marshal their support. Sinema publicly upended the president’s push ahead of his meeting with Democrats, while Manchin reiterated his opposition shortly after the meeting.

The lost opportunity with Manchin is acute: He negotiated the voting reform package currently on the Senate floor after rejecting Democrats’ initial elections reform bill last year.

“We’ve bowed in their direction for months. I think we’ve shown them proper respect,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. Asked later if Sinema and Manchin had a duty as Democrats to support the rules change, he replied: “I don’t know where their loyalties start and end. They can only answer that themselves.”

Several other Democrats haven’t made a final decision on rules changes; one of them, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), participated virtually in Tuesday’s caucus discussion due to business in his home state. Kelly is up for reelection this year and has not publicly endorsed changing the filibuster. Sinema also called in, while Manchin attended in person.

Schumer made clear again on Tuesday that the election reform vote and the associated vote to change Senate rules along party lines with a simple majority vote — a maneuver known as the “nuclear option” — would go forward, regardless of its nearly guaranteed failure in the evenly divided Senate.

This week’s debate comes after Schumer vowed last year that “failure is not an option.” The voting legislation that will fall short was crafted in response to a flurry of GOP-backed state-level bills designed to restrict ballot access. Proponents of the bill bet that Manchin and Sinema would relent on the filibuster if it were proven that the election and voting legislation could garner no GOP support.

But the two centrists have remained consistent in their position for more than a year. As a result, rank-and-file Democrats are grinding into the breach for what will potentially be their most high-profile failure of this Congress so far. Most in the caucus insist every Democrat must go on record at what they see as a historic moment.

“There are battles worth fighting, and protecting freedom to vote is one of those battles. And even if you fail, that doesn’t mean you’re just going to give up,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “We need to take this vote to let the American people know where each of us stands. That’s it.”

The damage that does to the rest of the party’s priorities, chiefly the moribund $1.7 trillion party-line social spending bill, is unclear. Manchin torpedoed the spending measure; while Sinema sounded supportive, she never explicitly endorsed it. Schumer has also vowed he will get the votes to pass that bill.

Schumer said Democrats can handle multiple issues at once, but that voting rights is the party’s top goal. He disagreed with Manchin’s criticism of Democrats’ priorities: “We’re not abandoning it; we will do other things as well.”

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