They face a familiar conflict over the role of the Senate in the American system. Political minorities adopt systematic obstruction – which now requires a qualified majority of 60 votes to cut short debate – as a shield protecting their rights; the majorities are irritated by the obstacle it presents to action on national priorities.
On several occasions, this conflict has surfaced over attempts to save the vote, among other protections of civil rights. As the civil rights movement intensified after World War II, senators in the pro-segregation South systematically obstructed their bulwark against proposals to ban “election taxes” that blocked black votes.
For two decades starting in the 1950s, frustrated liberals lobbied for the rules to change to weaken filibuster. In 1957, the year Manchin turned 10, their ideas revolved around allowing a majority of senators to end the debate after 15 days. Majority leader Lyndon Johnson, as biographer Robert Caro recounted in “Master of the Senate,” flatly rejected them.
Today Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and most of the Democratic caucus support the rule changes. They came up with several options that could take effect if all Democrats backed them.
A third option, which enjoys the most support among Democratic senators, would make the filibuster harder to mount and easier to end. Rather than launching a filibuster by simple declaration and forcing supporters of the action to overcome it, filibuster senators should talk all the time, as Jimmy Stewart popularized in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes” to Washington “.
This would ensure that the minority could propose a number of amendments to the legislation in question. This would allow each senator to speak twice. But that would ultimately allow the majority to end the debate and force final action with 51 votes, not 60.
But Manchin’s failure to garner Republican support for his voting rights bill underscores how, more generally, the filibuster completely halts action on contentious issues. That’s why his fellow Democrats keep trying.
“You have a consensus among Senate Democrats that our democracy is in danger, and this creates an opportunity for reform,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, one of those involved. “The verdict is not yet in.”
“I think there’s a 30-40% chance we’ll get something big,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
As it turns out, those Liberal Democrats in 1957 ended up winning limited voting rights protections without changing the obstruction. That’s because Johnson, straddling his alliance with other Southerners and his ambition to win national favor for a future presidential election, staged the passage of a modest civil rights bill.
Later, as president, Johnson passed the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Two months after suffrage protesters in Selma, Alabama were attacked by forces of the United Nations. Local order on “Bloody Sunday,” he and his Senate allies overcame a Southern obstruction by rallying a bipartisan group of 70 senators to close debate.
It took another decade before the Senate made it easier to stop the obstructions. In 1975, a majority of senators voted to reduce the threshold for closing debate from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 senators.
Among those who supported the change: Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, one of Manchin’s political heroes.