A. James Manchin, whose nephew, the senior lawmaker from West Virginia, is all over the news as the key Senate vote on a variety of topics (from infrastructure to voting rights), never shied away from the spotlight and, as a lifetime Democrat, worked for a Republican governor in the Mountain State.
A. James’ example, unlikely as it seems, may be an important one for Joe Manchin at a time when the West Virginia moderate, in the full glare of the national spotlight, tries to thread a middle course, policywise, between progressive members of his own party and Senate Republicans while weaving this way and that on the issue of the filibuster in an evenly divided Senate.
Manchin, who hails from Marion County, West Virginia, about an hour south of Uniontown, is the most consequential Mountain State politician since the late Robert Byrd.
Byrd, who died in 2010 and whose seat Manchin occupies, revered the Senate as the greatest of all legislative bodies. And for that reason, if for nothing else, he was respected by all, including by Republicans, many of whom instinctively looked to Byrd for guidance during trying times. In the late 1990s, during the Clinton impeachment trial, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby reflecting somewhat solemnly on a Bryd floor speech, said, “When Sen. Byrd speaks you have to listen.”
It is stated that Byrd is the person that Manchin most admires and tries to emulate, especially on the twin issues of bipartisanship and the 60-vote threshold for breaking a filibuster.
That very well may be the case. It may also be true that Manchin has both eyes trained on West Virginia politics. Donald Trump swept West Virginia twice, in 2016 and 2020, both times with nearly 70% of the vote.
Joe Manchin knows how to read election returns, including his own. Challenged by the Republican attorney general of West Virginia for his Senate seat in 2018, Manchin squeezed out a narrow victory, 49% to 46%, with another 4% going to the third party Libertarian candidate.
It’s little wonder then that Manchin is being careful. At 73, the political veteran clearly cares about his political future, as should other Democrats. Without Manchin, Republicans would hold a 51-49 Senate advantage. Goodbye, Chuck Schumer. Welcome back, Mitch McConnell.
Labeling Joe Manchin a DINO, a Democrat In Name Only, doesn’t help matters. Progressives who want to jettison Manchin, who want to shrink the Democratic tent, are courting disaster, not just for their party and their policies, but for the country, given the state of the GOP – the party of Trump and insurrection.
That said, at this stage of the game, Joe Manchin appears to be more Hamlet than Bryd: “to be or not to be” for the filibuster or its modification, “that’s the question.”
Manchin has been both for and against changing the Senate’s filibuster rules. In a recent newspaper column, he indicated opposition to even a slight modification.
Then on Monday of last week, as reported by The Intercept, Manchin told a Zoom meeting of fellow-moderates that he is “open to looking at” scaling back the 60-vote cloture rule as well as reinstating the talking filibuster, which would mean forcing senators to hold the floor around the clock in a test of both physical and mental endurance, as in olden days.
According to two men who knew Robert Byrd well, the late senator would be aghast at the way the filibuster had been twisted by GOP leader McConnell to thwart the Senate’s role in governing the nation.
Ira Shapiro told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, “I believe (Byrd) would have attacked (McConnell’s misuse of the filibuster) years ago.”
“I believe a 51-vote Senate empowers the bipartisan deal maker,” the role Manchin longs to play, Shapiro said, whereas the 60-vote filibuster “empowers the obstructionists.”
Norm Ornstein said Byrd would have viewed McConnell not as a “guardian of the Senate, not as an institutionalist,” but as an obstructionist, pure and simple. Ornstein favors filibuster-modification. Burden those who filibuster, the better to free the majority of senators to govern, he argues.
Manchin, by all appearances a serious individual, seems to be listening, at least at times. At other times, he may be hearing in his head Uncle Jimmy, whose reputation and notoriety helped to launch Joe’s political career as state lawmaker, West Virginia secretary of state, governor and, since 2010, as senator.
A. James, a bluff, clownish figure, loved and campaigned for JFK during the pivotal 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary. Later, he was appointed by Republican governor Arch Moore to clear the state of junked cars. He did an outstanding job in both roles. All you had to do was ask him.