Sen. Joe Manchin said he’d do “anything” to prevent school shootings like the one that left at least 19 children and two teachers dead in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday. Anything, that is, except change the Senate filibuster.
“It’s just absolutely horrific,” the West Virginia Democrat told reporters Tuesday evening. “You all know where I stand. I’ll do anything I can.”
But that doesn’t include changing the Senate’s rules to allow legislation to pass with a simple majority rather than 60 votes.
“The filibuster is the only thing that prevents us from total insanity. Total insanity,” he said when asked if he’d reconsider his opposition to the policy.
The biggest political risk Manchin has taken in his career was to co-author gun control reforms following the Sandy Hook school massacre, which left more children dead than in the Uvalde massacre. That he won’t even consider changes to the filibuster to renew that legislation shows just how firmly he opposes that change—and erases any lingering hope that Senate Democrats can pass significant legislation anytime in the near future.
Manchin famously broke with the National Rifle Association and wrote legislation with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey to expand background checks following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 young children. That was a huge political risk from the senator, given his state’s strong gun culture and deep-red politics. The NRA, who’d backed him in earlier elections, came after him hard in his 2018 reelection, spending heavily on a race he barely won after cruising to statewide victories for much of his career. But the Manchin-Toomey background check bill failed in the Senate in 2013 because only 55 senators supported the legislation, fewer than the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.
The Uvalde massacre is the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook, and just the most recent in a long string of mass shootings from Buffalo to El Paso to Parkland to Las Vegas to Orlando to many other cities and towns in the intervening years that have left thousands of Americans dead and more than 10,000 wounded.
Democrats lost the Senate majority in 2014, the election after a minority of senators used the filibuster to block Manchin-Toomey (though the bill would have been blocked in the GOP-controlled House even if it had passed the Senate). It took six years for Democrats to claw back the barest of majorities. Now, they’re on the brink of squandering that majority without a single significant legislative achievement.
It’s still unclear whether Senate Democrats would be able to pass serious gun control reforms even if Manchin were to reverse his position on the filibuster. Manchin has already voiced skepticism about more expansive gun control measures like an assault weapons ban, arguing that his pared-down version to expand background checks is the only thing that stood a chance of passing the Senate. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and a handful of other Democratic senators also oppose eliminating the filibuster, and there’s no sign that they’re revisiting their positions in the wake of Uvalde, either.
Democrats could theoretically hang onto the House and win enough Senate seats this fall to pass major legislation over Manchin’s objections, but given how dismal the national political climate is for their party and President Biden’s sagging poll numbers, that’s likely a pipe dream. Democrats are almost certain to lose their House majority, and likely to lose their slim Senate majority, this fall.
Manchin and other Democratic filibuster defenders worry that eliminating the filibuster would deepen partisanship and allow Republicans to run roughshod over Congress the next time they win unified control of government. That’s a real concern. But while leading Republicans have vowed to maintain the filibuster, it’s unclear if they actually will do so if they regain power. And progressives argue that the stakes are simply too high on too many issues that failing to act on them is worse than any possible fallout.
The filibuster has blocked a number of key Democratic priorities, including national voting rights legislation, but it isn’t the sole reason Democrats have failed to move major legislation.
Senate Democrats failed to pass sweeping legislation to mitigate global warming, help pay for child care, and regulate prescription drug costs simply because they couldn’t get Manchin and Sinema to support a package that only needed 50 Democratic senators to pass, showing that even when the filibuster isn’t an option they often can’t get all 50 of their members to agree on major legislation in the evenly divided senate. Democrats’ recent attempts to pass legislation guaranteeing the right to an abortion didn’t even muster a majority in the Senate because Manchin opposed it and voted with the GOP.
Manchin may think ending the filibuster would lead to “total insanity.” But as the saying goes, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He seems content to repeat the loop of the Senate talking much and doing nothing until Democrats are back in the Senate minority—no matter what horrors confront him.