Some Democrats wonder when Schumer will get tough with Manchin

WASHINGTON (thehill): Sen. Joe Manchin’s defiant statement that he will not vote for a sweeping election reform bill nor vote to get rid of the filibuster has progressive groups and some Democratic lawmakers wondering when Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will get tough with the West Virginia Democrat.

Manchin is a member of Schumer’s leadership team and Schumer has several points of leverage, including the power to replace him as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But Schumer doesn’t have a reputation for getting tough with colleagues. Instead, he keeps them close and hardly ever criticizes Democratic senators who cause him headaches. Schumer is up for reelection next year, and there is speculation he could be challenged in a primary.

Manchin on Monday said Schumer never pressures him, despite growing frustration among progressive activists and other Democratic senators who worry that President Biden’s agenda could stall on Capitol Hill.

“No, he never does. He realizes he’s from New York and I’m from West Virginia, two different places,” Manchin said.

Former President Trump won West Virginia last year with 69 percent of the vote. By contrast, Biden won New York with 61 percent.

Asked about the sense of disappointment expressed publicly by Democratic colleagues in response to his positions on election reform and the filibuster, Manchin insisted: “They understand.”

Yet, progressive activists are running short on patience with Manchin, and also to some extent with Schumer.

Yvette Simpson, the CEO of Democracy for America, a progressive grass-roots advocacy group, said she felt “frustration” and “disappointment” when she read about Manchin’s positions, which he firmly restated in an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail over the weekend.

“Clearly, he has decided that he respects and admires [Senate GOP Leader] Mitch McConnell more than he respects Chuck Schumer in his own party,” she added. “He’s writing an op-ed about what he’s going to do. My advice to Chuck Schumer is to put a bill on the floor and see what he does.”

Schumer reiterated Monday afternoon that he plans for the Senate to take up the election reform bill during the final week of the June work period.

Simpson said the frustration is widely shared among progressive activists around the country.

“This is core: voting rights, protecting Black and brown people, listening to and valuing diversity, reversing white supremacy. This is foundational to Democratic politics,” she said.

“The main job of the majority leader is to bring the caucus together. He needs to be able to deliver votes. That’s it. And the fact that he continues to concede to Manchin and allow him to be this pseudo leader is ridiculous,” she added. “Manchin wins time and time again with support from unions, with support from working-class voters in West Virginia, and Schumer needs to turn the heat up on him.”

Some Democratic senators say they also want to see Schumer put more pressure on Manchin.

“There has to be increasing pressure. You just can’t take no for an answer. The question is what kind of pressure is going to be effective?” said one Democratic senator speaking on background who warned that simply criticizing Manchin “will not elicit a positive response.”

The lawmaker said several Democratic senators have spoken to Manchin to feel him out about changing his mind.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 ranking member of the Democratic leadership, acknowledged that he’s hearing intense frustration from Democrats back home.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” he said, when asked about whether he’s hearing complaints from constituents.

But Durbin cautioned that people who don’t work in the Senate don’t fully understand all the political complexities of the situation.

“They have a very simple view of it and it’s OK, because who would keep up with the complexity of the Senate rules? They say get rid of the filibuster and that’s the end of the story, we’ll do everything after that. It’s not that simple,” he said.

While activists are calling on Schumer to pressure Manchin, Durbin warned that cracking the whip isn’t an effective leadership strategy because a rank-and-file lawmaker who’s causing an issue today may be the key to passing an important bill next month.

“First, it’s 50-50, which is a complication to start with. And second, today’s adversary is tomorrow’s ally in this place. You try to maintain a professional, civil relationship even if you disagree completely with a member’s position,” he said.

“I’m trying to get to a point with Joe Manchin, who is a friend, where I understand really where he wants to go, what he’s willing to do,” he added.

Several Democratic senators indicated they were discouraged with Manchin’s announced opposition to the election reform bill, which is intended to fight voter suppression in response to laws being passed by Republican legislatures limiting early and mail-in voting.

“Obviously I’m disappointed by Sen. Manchin’s position,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in response to Manchin’s op-ed, adding: “I am dead set against doing nothing.”

Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she was also “disappointed by Sen. Manchin’s announcement” and pledged she “will not give up on the fight for voting rights.”

These senators subtly raised pressure on Manchin by invoking his name directly, a practice that is usually avoided in the clubby Senate. Usually when a colleague is referred to on the Senate floor, the protocol is to refer to that colleague as the gentleman or the gentlewoman from a certain state.

The biggest stick Schumer could use to keep Manchin in line on big votes is to threaten to call a secret vote in the Democratic caucus on whether he should be able to keep his chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a plum position for someone representing coal-rich West Virginia.

The last time that was done was in 2008, when Democrats voted on whether to let then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) keep his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee after he backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in that year’s presidential election. The caucus decided by a vote of 42-13 not to strip Lieberman of his gavel.

Democratic strategists warn that Schumer has to proceed carefully with Manchin because he is the 50th potential Democratic vote for Biden’s biggest priority, a massive infrastructure investment package that could exceed $2 trillion. Manchin has said McConnell and other Republicans have tried to get him to become a Republican “many times” but said it wouldn’t happen because of his stances on taxes and health care.

The infrastructure bill is expected to move under the budget reconciliation process so that it can avoid a GOP filibuster and pass by a simple-majority vote. But moving ahead with a reconciliation vehicle has been postponed because Manchin has insisted on first trying to negotiate with Senate Republicans, despite broad skepticism among other Democratic senators about the prospect of reaching a bipartisan deal.

Steve Jarding, a former senior adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Schumer doesn’t have many options when it comes to pushing Manchin into line.

“The problem for Schumer is that he doesn’t really hold any cards and Manchin does. Manchin obviously could make the case, playing politics to his own West Virginia base, trying to show he’s independent and all that,” he said.

“The best way for the Democrats to handle Joe Manchin is to have Joe Biden do it behind the scenes,” he said. “Biden’s got a much bigger bully pulpit.

“I think the Manchin folks would love to have New York senator, liberal Chuck Schumer go after Manchin. If Schumer tried to get tough, it only emboldens Manchin because his base at home is going to love it. He’s going to say, ‘Look, I’m standing up to the liberal, I’m standing up to the New York guy,’ ” he added.

Biden played a crucial role behind the scenes persuading Manchin to vote for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March.

Manchin held up the legislation over concerns that the federal boost in unemployment benefits was initially too generous and that a provision to forgive up to $10,200 in benefits from taxes would add to the budget deficit.

Democratic senators said Biden was “very involved” in mediating the stalemate.

Jarding said Biden will need to reprise that role in getting Manchin to support his top legislative priorities.

“If Joe Biden became more Lyndon Johnson, calling Manchin in and saying here’s what we need and here’s what I can do for you and your reelection. Politicians listen to that much more than they do someone threatening them,” he said.