After hearing his Senate predecessor’s name come up repeatedly over the past few months, Joe Manchin asked Joe Biden a poignant question behind closed doors on Thursday: Did the late Robert Byrd ever break Senate rules to change them?
The president had a simple response to Manchin: “We live in a different time now,” according to several people with knowledge of the meeting.
During a private visit to Democratic senators to persuade them to change the rules to pass the voting reform bill, Biden added that Byrd, a former Democratic majority leader who criticized filibuster abuses in the twilight of his life, wanted the Senate to function, and sometimes this meant a change in the legendary tradition of the camera.
Biden spoke at some length about Byrd, with whom he worked in the Senate, during a meeting with the 50-member Democratic Party caucus, arguing that the late West Virginian believed Senate rules were not static and needed to evolve. Later in the discussion, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) revealed that Byrd had maneuvered several times to change the rules of the smaller Senate by a simple majority vote — the same move that Merkley and other progressives have sold almost every member of their party to do.
“Joe asked about changing the rules of the Senate. And Joe [Biden] spoke about his experience. He has been here for 36 years. He has changed a lot. He stressed that the rules of the Senate are not inviolable,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) after the visit. “President Biden, speaking as a senator who has seen the rules change a lot, talked about the fact that the rules change because times change.”
But Thursday was a painful day for Senate rule reformers. The commander-in-chief, who appeared in the Senate for final approval of the rule changes, was unable to shake the resistance of Manchin and his fellow centrist Senator Kirsten Sinema (D-Arizona).
In fact, Manchin and Sinema are just digging in.
After the caucus, Manchin stated in a new statement that “I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.” He cited Byrd’s testimony to the 2010 Senate Rules Committee, in which Byrd emphasized the need to protect filibusters but also condemned their overuse. His tough hand was a serious blow to Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s push to change Senate rules along partisan lines.
Even when Democrats filed with Biden a proposal to change Senate rules to reform federal elections in response to GOP-backed state laws aimed at restricting ballot access, a significant portion of them didn’t know they had already lost. Just minutes before the group’s meeting with Biden, Cinema slammed the door, weakening the filibuster during a speech on the Senate floor that Biden once called home.
“People were just surprised when we went in there. Because no one knew what she was saying in the room “in defense of the filibuster,” said the Democratic senator, who missed Cinema’s words. “There were probably 20 people who didn’t even know that she had said something."
Unlike Manchin, Sinema did not question Biden during his roughly 90-minute visit to the caucus. There may not have been much to say: Cinema made it crystal clear during her speech that while she supports the voting and electoral reform bills, she “will not support individual actions that exacerbate the underlying disease of division that is infecting our country.”
Many Democrats declined to comment on Cinema’s preliminary fight with Biden, which privately hurt some who thought she should at least listen to the president. Senator John Tester (D-Montana) remarked, “It’s an interesting time.”
The President briefly addressed reporters after meeting with Senatorial Democrats, noting the great odds he faces: "To be honest, I don’t know if we can do it."
It is clear to some that no amount of private lobbying from Cinema’s colleagues, no public criticism from activists, and no vote to change the rules will cause her to change her position.
“Apparently she wired that she wasn’t going to change her mind,” said Senator Mazi Hirono (D-Hawaii). “So, that’s all.
With the latest announcements by Sinema and Manchin, Schumer now faces a choice: either take a doomed Senate floor vote that will split his caucus, or move on. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the White House will continue to fight.
But Psaki added that it is up to Schumer to decide what the next steps are for the bill, which the party has harshly presented as necessary to save American democracy.
“[Biden’s] the job is to take on difficult challenges to stand up for what is right. And he thinks it is right to change the rules to transfer the right to vote and protect the basic rights of the people,” Psaki told reporters.
And Biden has not yet refused to change the minds of the two centrists. According to a source familiar with the plans, he is due to meet at the White House Thursday night with Manchin and Cinema.
Schumer’s plan to vote for rule changes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday could be thwarted by factors other than Manchin and Sinema’s staunch opposition to the rule change. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) announced Thursday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus and will be placed in quarantine, which could leave the party short of the 50 votes needed to move the bill.
However, many senators want to keep moving forward. Senator John Ossoff (R-GA) delivered an impassioned speech during a meeting with Biden on Thursday, outlining the GOP’s recent changes to voting laws, including in his state, and pleading with his colleagues to act. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who is due for re-election this fall, later said that despite two of his colleagues’ opposition to the rule changes, “the most important thing is to have the right to vote, period.”
Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) argued that the upper house was already empowering the minority, given that states like Wyoming have as many senators as California. And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the party’s highest-ranking senator, asked why the caucus couldn’t unite around loosening the filibuster.
Leahy said that during the final year of his 40-year Senate career, he will do everything he can to get these bills passed.
“We’re going to have a lot of drama when we come to vote,” said Merkley, who was sitting on the Senate floor during Sinema’s speech. “Hope will be an eternal spring for me until it is crushed.”