In what rational universe could a democratic institution have 54 votes to advance an idea and 35 votes against, and the proposition fails? It would also have failed if there were 59 votes for it and just one against it. Sound crazy? Yes, but that’s how the United States Senate operates because of its self-imposed filibuster rule requiring 60 votes in the 100-member body to cut off debate and advance a bill. (Two Democrats didn’t vote on Friday; six Republicans were in favor.)
The issue in question was whether to advance the bill to create an independent January 6 Commission to review the deadly insurrectionist attack on the Capitol. Many unanswered questions remain about the deadliest assault on our democracy since the Civil War. What specifically was Donald Trump doing at the time of the attack, what was he communicating to pliable Republican members of Congress on the day when their lives were under threat? What exactly was said in the heated exchange between Kevin McCarthy and the President? What was the role, if any, of some Republicans inside the Capitol who allegedly supported the insurrectionists? [Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) and Mo Brooks (Ala.) are names that come to mind.] Why did so many rioters in the crowd come to Washington heavily armed? How coordinated was the planning of the insurrectionists and who funded and communicated with them? Why did it take three hours for the National Guard to defend against the violence? What should be done to stop this kind of attack from happening again?
In today’s polarized Senate, where a small minority can nullify the will of even a healthy majority, there seems little possibility of achieving substantial bipartisan agreement on any number of crucial issues, from infrastructure to climate change to voting protection, without using legislative tricks like budget reconciliation or doing away with the 60 vote Senate procedural rule. Centrist/Moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who naively clings to a now quaintly dated civics textbook image of how a bill becomes law ( which includes filibusters), holds the key to Democrats’ ability to pass any of their major legislative initiatives. President Biden needs Manchin on board to get to 50, and then- with Vice President Kamala Harris in her role as Senate President – to 51 and majority passage. On matters requiring 60 votes, Biden needs Manchin to convince at least 10 of his Republican colleagues to see the benefits of bipartisan compromise.
Manchin appears to delight in his new role as would-be power broker, zipping between White House meetings, Senate hideaways and press interviews in Congressional corridors, extolling the virtues of bipartisanship. On the issue of a January 6 Commission, he strongly supported a serious and bipartisan investigation of the hows and whys of the insurrection. Outspoken against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP opponents of the Commission for bowing before former President Trump , Manchin made a good faith effort to work with Republican senators he thought were persuadable.
A joint statement with centrist Senator Krysten Sinema, (D-Ariz), who shares his support for preserving the filibuster, said: “A bipartisan commission to investigate the events of that day has passed the House of Representatives with a bipartisan vote and is a critical step to ensuring our nation never has to endure an attack at the hands of our countrymen again… We implore our Senate Republican colleagues to work with us to find a path forward on a commission to examine the events of January 6th.”
Before the vote Manchin said, ” I think we’ll come together. You have to have faith there’s ten good people.” His message to them: “The truth shall set you free,” adding ” there’s no excuse for any Republican to vote against” the bill because Democrats have given the Republicans everything they asked for , including a commitment to wrap up the process by the end of this year.
Friday, intransigent Republicans, using Manchin’s beloved filibuster, effectively killed a serious bipartisan independent inquiry into the horrific January 6 attempt to bring down Congress and stop the ratification of the Presidential election.
Afterwards, Manchin released a video on Twitterhttps://www.newsweek.com/topic/twitter, stating: “Choosing to put politics and political elections above the health of our Democracy is unconscionable, …..And I’m sorry that my Republican colleagues and friends let political fear prevent them from doing what they know in their hearts to be right…The betrayal of the oath we each take is something they will have to live with.” He was not available to comment on whether he might now reconsider his position supporting the filibuster.
As for the filibuster and the fate of Biden’s ambitious agenda, it’s not looking good. Shape-shifting Sinema, who supposedly was Manchin’s pro-filibuster ally in tirelessly trying to attract GOP votes for the commission, skipped town and didn’t even vote. Other Democratic senators have yet to commit to its full elimination and, as one Democratic Senate aide told the Washington Post, there are “at least 10 Democratic senators who disagree with key parts of the bills that Republicans are filibustering , but they just don’t need to say anything crazy because Joe Manchin is out there taking the arrows for them.”
There are clearly options ahead to investigate important unanswered questions about 1/6 that are beyond the scope of current inquiries. Virginia Democratic Cong. Gerry Connolly wants Biden to form a presidential commission, but that has the clear disadvantage of not having congressional subpoena powers. But McConnell et al may have overplayed their hand. Some of the Senators backing the independent commission did so because they thought they could run out the clock and mitigate political damage. Now it seems that a House select committee could avoid many of the procedural shenanigans the GOP could have used to bollix the independent investigation. A House select committee doesn’t need to be balanced in partisan members. Democrats could wield unilateral subpoena power and hearings could extend well into the 2022 election cycle.
It’s a sad day when a simple majority vote isn’t enough to pass what should be a bipartisan purpose in learning from the tragedy of January 6, 2021. It’s sad that Manchin, who is on the side of the good guys wanting to create that Commission, may still be on the dark side opposing a reform that could enable passage of that Commission and other important legislative initiatives with existential implications for our country. It’s sadder still to contemplate that, even if Manchin changes his position, there are serious “unknown unknowns” ahead.
The bleak weather this Memorial Day seems appropriate.