Alan Zendell, November 6, 2021
Last evening two notable events occurred. One was at a social gathering of my senior community, where I took a lot of razzing from my very purple friends. Their consensus was that henceforth I would be known as “Debbie Downer” because of my predictions of doom and gloom about the future of our democracy and Congress.
I had two reactions. One was joy at the good-natured quality of their teasing and the obvious fact that they were listening and thinking about what I said. The other was – hold on. My perceived negativity was conditioned on the possibility that Joe Manchin’s fight for bipartisan passage of President Biden’s legislative agenda might fail because of Republican obstruction and the inability of progressives and moderates to compromise. In fact, I have never lost my optimism that the Democrats would ultimately prevail, not because I have great confidence in them, but because the alternative, turning the country over to a Trump-dominated Republican party is too awful to contemplate.
For months, we’ve watched Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat nearing the end of his second six-year term as Senator from West Virginia, a red state that gave Trump one of his largest margins of victory. The 50-50 split in the Senate gave Manchin unprecedented leverage, as he alone could block passage of everything President Biden asked the Democrats to pass, and for most of us, it was impossible to know what was in Manchin’s mind.
Was he sincere? Was he enjoying his serendipitous year of power too much? Would there come a point when, if all else failed, Manchin would get on board and agree to temporarily hamstring the filibuster? Was Manchin as stubbornly uncompromising as Bernie Sanders, his chief rival in these negotiations among Senate Democrats?
All of which brings us to the second event. The House finally passed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed earlier by the Senate. The final stumbling block had been mistrust among progressives over voting on the bill separately from its counterpart Build Back Better bill. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi managed to broker a deal by putting the promise to work on the second bill in writing. Wow, is that all it took? Why didn’t anyone think of that before Biden had to go off to Europe with people believing our government was fatally dysfunctional?
The even better news is that we have a bit more insight into Manchin’s thinking. I believe in his commitment to bipartisanism, which is absolutely essential if our two-party Congress is ever to to function properly again. I also believe Manchin has his own line in the sand, and if Mitch McConnell’s scorched earth obstruction policy continues, he will reach a point where he is willing accept that the only way to move the country forward is to take his partial victory and support the suspension of the filibuster.
There’s still a very good chance that we will soon see a workable compromise on the Build Back Better plan, on which the progressives have already compromised half of their original spending goals. Despite Manchin’s latest objection to the family leave provision, I believe the Democrats will get it done. The inevitable result of that will be happy responses by at least 70% of Americans, if polls are to be believed. That, undoubtedly, will restore Biden’s approval ratings to levels near what they were in the Spring, and that will set the stage for the ultimate battle faced by this Congress, Democrats in particular.
For anyone who cares about the future of our democracy and the stability of our government, the most critical thing this Congress must do is pass a new federal voting rights law. Attorney General Merrick Garland has initiated a series of law suits designed to force the Supreme Court to weigh in on the laws passed by nineteen red states that will make it very difficult for many people of color to vote. The single most important decision the courts may ever make concerning the future of our country will be determining whether these state laws are constitutional. It’s especially critical right now, as the states that are most blatantly working to assure future dominance by Republicans are going to new extremes to gerrymander elections through 2030.
Court decisions aside, it’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of passing a federal voting rights bill. America’s future as a major power and the rights of all our children and grandchildren depend on it. If two major legislative defeats don’t convince Mitch McConnell that continuing to obstruct a voting rights bill is untenable, Joe Manchin will have to make the most critical decision of his career. It’s likely going to be impossible to pass it unless Manchin goes along with suspending the filibuster in the Senate.