Bill Clinton, Oprah and fellow centrists: Democrats are doing everything they can to influence Manchin

The strongest voices lobbying Joe Manchin to change Senate rules and push electoral reform are not liberal activists or die-hard obstructive opponents. On the contrary, this is a small group of his friends who once shared his reluctance.

It is no coincidence that the same trio of centrist Democrats pushed Manchin throughout the past month into heated conversations about the future of filibusters. Senators John Tester (Montana), Tim Kane (Virginia) and Angus King (Island) opposed the relaxation of House rules that would empower the minority party. They are now spearheading a campaign to win over the West Virginia Democrats.

Tester, Kane, and King met with Manchin at least a dozen times to discuss Senate rules, which participants said were sometimes joined by other Democrats. They are the vanguard of a delicate effort to break Manchin’s staunch resistance to changing obstruction.

Manchin told colleagues that prominent names outside the Senate have been flashing on his phone line in recent days. He heard from former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and talk show legends Oprah Winfrey, as well as former Manchin employees and former Senator Robert Byrd (DW.Va.), according to someone familiar with the negotiations. Manchin’s office declined to comment on the calls.

But perhaps the most fruitful discussions take place behind closed doors, among the senators themselves. Kane likened the effort to his 27-hour trip to Washington earlier this week after a blizzard destroyed I-95: “Going slowly towards my goal, like my commute.”

Manchin has made it crystal clear that he does not want to change the 60-vote threshold required to pass most bills through a unilateral vote, which is currently the only way to gut a pirate. At the same time, it is difficult for him to refuse his friends.

And that explains Manchin’s relatively open rhetoric in recent days about whether there is a change in pirate activity that could improve the work of the Senate. He made modest adjustments that many Democrats now see as a tiny glimmer of hope that they can eventually succeed. But they are not yet – not even close.

“I cannot say that we have a decision, resolution or decision. But we continue our conversation. This is good news, ”King said.

Negotiations between the four centrists represent the best chance Democrats have to influence Manchin in the coming days, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushes for a January 17 vote on the Senate rule change. Schumer is playing a tough outer game, repeatedly pressuring Manchin and Senator Kirsten Sinemu (Democrat from Arizona) to approve a rule change that would allow a simple majority to reform the elections.

Even so, the effort is far from the goal at best. For now, Manchin and Sinema’s support for a weaker filibuster through a unilateral “nuclear option” will be one of the biggest twists and turns in modern political history.

Discussions with Sinema are separate, and she has strongly stated that she does not want to touch on the super majority requirement. However, many Democrats believe that if Manchin supports something, the rest of the faction will support him.

At the same time, Manchin and Sinema are part of a bipartisan group that began meeting this week to discuss a revision of the Election Vote Count Act and other more modest electoral reforms. If Manchin and Sinema, as expected, backtrack on a major rule change this month to push for massive electoral reform, it could leave these discussions as the best hope for any action on this front.

However, people like Tester, whose home state is almost as conservative as Manchin’s, look directly to Manchin to accept the filibuster change. Tester, Kane and King signed letter from 2017 promising to “keep the existing rules” Senate, but they all say that the January 6 uprising and other events have changed their mind.

“Joe is a tough guy. We are all complex people, – said the Tester. “All three of us were in a position where we didn’t want to change the filibuster. And I think that if he had not been armed, I would not have talked about it now. ”

Publicly speaking about a filibuster is specially advertised to Manchin. Democrats frequently cite Byrd, now in Manchin’s place, and his possible support for changes in Senate rule over the course of his career. And instead of talking about killing or gutting a filibuster, Democrats are now portraying their desire to “restore” the Senate.

Manchin has stated several times this week that he does not support self-changing Democrats and prefers to work on any changes across the aisle, just as he hoped to do with electoral reform. In an interview, Manchin said his fellow Democrats are not foisting an obsession on him.

“It’s very informative. My God, we have a lot of historical background, we will find out how we came to what we have today as a body. How we developed, who we are, how we got here, and also what changes have occurred during this time, ”said Manchin. “They are all my friends … they know where I am.”

Perhaps most encouraging for the Democrats, Manchin did not refuse to listen to them. This is all part of Manchin’s long line on electoral reform: confronting the first version of the Democrats last year, then working with colleagues to write a version that he could support. He then spent months trying to recruit Republicans to sign electoral reform and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, with the result that the latter was backed only by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (of Alaska).

Despite this brick wall of opposition to the GOP so far, Manchin has largely ruled out changing the party line rules, calling it a “heavy lift” this week. He also refuses to make an exemption from filibusters specifically for elections and voting, saying this week: "Every time there is a tenderloin, you eat a whole turkey. ” Manchin voted against unilateral changes to Senate rules with both Democratic and Republican majorities.

He also continues to defend the super majority claim and questions anything that can mitigate it. The reforms he is pursuing include getting rid of filibuster voting even on bills and changing the 60-vote threshold to a three-fifths demand, which will force more minority members to stay in Washington. However, this would not create a clear path for the Senate to pass electoral reform.

However, for a trio of Senate optimists, Manchin’s openness alone, a year after he vowed never to change the filibuster, this is something like a victory.

“He understands that it is necessary to get the right to vote as soon as possible. So the question is, how do we do this? ” Kane said. “The question is which option is preferable? And we simply do not exist. ”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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