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Manchin Is Unmoved On The Voting Rights Bill After He Met With Civil Rights Groups

Updated June 8, 2021 at 2:47 PM ET

Sen. Joe Manchin praised a Tuesday morning meeting with civil rights leaders, calling it "constructive" and "informative," but maintained his opposition to a sweeping set of election overhaul measures known as the For the People Act.

"I don't think anybody changed positions on that. We're just learning where everybody's coming from," the West Virginia Democrat told Capitol Hill reporters after the meeting, which included the heads of the National Urban League, the NAACP, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and others.

The meeting came two days after Manchin announced in an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he wouldn't support the elections reform and voting rights bill, citing a lack of bipartisanship.

"Congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials," he wrote.

Manchin's opposition is seen as a death knell for the legislation, which every other Democratic senator is co-sponsoring and which Democrats argue is the necessary remedy to efforts by Republican-led states to pass restrictive election laws.

Manchin was in "listening mode"

Despite Manchin's steadfast stance on the legislation, NAACP President Derrick Johnson called the meeting "productive" and said he believes Manchin is someone "committed to making democracy work."

"Our goal was to establish and build the relationship [with Manchin], and we accomplished that," he told NPR. "Now the real work starts, because the commitment from the senator and from us is that we would maintain the dialogue and work as hard as possible to come up with a solution that can actually become policy."

He added: "The work of the NAACP in this moment is around the outcome to protect the rights of voters, and one meeting won't solve that."

Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, also said it was a good first meeting.

"[Manchin] was very much in a listening mode. He shared his viewpoints," she told NPR. "He seemed to really have a deep concern that our democracy is really at a crossroads."

Counting votes in the Senate

Campbell said she discussed in the meeting how the filibuster has historically been used to block civil rights legislation.

"And here we are in 2021 with a Senate ... that could actually stop the ability to make voting rights reform when we are having an all-out assault on voting rights all over this country."

Since Democrats hold the thinnest of majorities in the Senate, either they need 10 Republicans to join them in supporting the legislation, which is extremely unlikely, or they need to eliminate the filibuster and allow the bill to advance with a simple majority, something Manchin has repeatedly said he opposes.

Speaking with CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, Manchin said he wants to work to get Republicans on board with passing a voting rights bill.

"I'm going to fight for this, and I think the Republicans will fight for this and understand we must come together on a voting rights bill in a bipartisan way," he said.

Manchin's counterproposal gets pushback

Manchin supports HR 4, also known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

But that measure is also unlikely to get support from 10 Republican senators.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the voting rights legislation is intact and that the Supreme Court struck down only a piece on pre-clearance because it decided conditions had changed since the law was passed.

"So there's no threat to the Voting Rights [Act]. It's against the law to discriminate in the voting on the basis of race already, and so I think [the Lewis bill] is unnecessary," he told reporters.

Johnson, of the NAACP, commended Manchin for his support of HR 4 but said it's not encompassing of everything that he believes is needed.

"That piece of legislation is important as you look forward, but there's some recent activity that we also have to address by states like Georgia and several other jurisdictions so that individuals have access to voting free and clear from voter suppression methods," he said.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., told reporters Tuesday morning that "it's not an either-or proposition" between the two pieces of legislation.

"I'm glad that we have the John Lewis bill, appropriately named in his honor," he said. "But let's be clear: John Lewis spent his last 10 years fighting for the provisions of the For the People Act, because he understood that over the last decade, we've seen an assault on voting rights across our country that sought to roll back the very protections that he fought for."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to her Democratic colleagues Tuesday that HR 4 won't be ready until the fall and shouldn't be considered a "substitute" for HR 1, the For the People Act.

"Congressman John Lewis wrote 300 pages of H.R. 1 to end voter suppression," she wrote. "It would be our hope to have this pass the House and Senate in a bipartisan way."

Democrats plan to hold a vote on the measure this month, even though it's expected to fail.

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.