I know you’re in the throes of negotiations over the Build Back Better Act and the timing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, so I won’t take too much of your time. You’ve had another weekend of fighting with your party’s liberals. There was that Bernie Sanders op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail and leaked word that you had managed to put the kibosh on some parts of the reconciliation bill that would have pushed utilities away from fossil fuels.
Despite what seems like a fair amount of bad blood here, I think there’s a deal to be had, but it’s a little different than what’s being discussed. It won’t make everyone happy, and it won’t make anyone ecstatic, but it will lead to a bill that does a lot for the country and West Virginia.
Let me say first, I know where you’re coming from. Except for a brief stint as a civilian, you’ve been in elective office for almost 35 years of your 74 years on Earth. As a state legislator, secretary of state, governor, and senator, youwouldn’t have been mistaken for a liberal, and no one should be surprised at where you are now. You told former Representative Steve Israel within sight of your houseboat the other night, “When did I ever run for the Senate or any office from West Virginia saying that I was for more government spending?” Your defense of your state’s coal industry and a broad definition of Second Amendment rights are unassailable. You are pro-life in a party that has very few elected officials who oppose expansive abortion rights. That’s who you are.
I’m of the school that Democrats ought to be grateful that you’re still in the party despite what must be regular entreaties from Mitch McConnell to join the Republicans. James Carville is fond of saying that you’re an Italian Roman Catholic Democrat who gets elected in West Virginia. If you weren’t the Mountaineer State’s senator, it’d be Marsha Blackburn, the very Trumpy senator from neighboring Tennessee. Lots of Democrats wish you were as liberal as Jay Rockefeller or Robert Byrd, the last Democratic senators in West Virginia. But those days are over. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a county in your state since 2008.
But no one should forget that you’re a Democrat. You’ve had a long relationship with the United Mine Workers. You took on coal magnates like Don Blankenship. You came to the Senate too late to vote for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but you voted against repealing it. People who say you’re not a real Democrat apparently don’t remember moderates like Ben Nelson, Max Cleland, Mark Pryor, and others.
You don’t want Joe Biden to be a failed president, but you also don’t like what you perceive as a dangerous lurch to the left with the passage of too lavish a reconciliation. The liberals need to understand that if you were churlish, you’d be against any reconciliation package. You’re not. (You voted for the American Rescue Plan Act through reconciliation.) The bottom line for you is $1.5 billion. I think you could make a case for a lot more, but I live in the District of Columbia, and I don’t have a say.
Liberals should understand that as recently as 2016, Hillary Clinton ran on what was then a bold infrastructure plan of . . . $275 billion, compared to the $1 trillion-plus that’s already been passed in the Senate—with 19 Republican votes! The Squad and Bernie Sanders have every right to push for more, but the world has already moved in their direction more than they’re willing to admit.
So as you think about a deal, consider voting rights. First, Democrats should be grateful that your Protect the Vote Act, with Amy Klobuchar, will be voted on this week, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. It’s got a lot of things that Democrats like, and Americans should like. The revised bill makes Election Day a public holiday, ensures that every state offers same-day voter registration, sets minimum federal standards on mail voting, bans partisan gerrymandering, and allows for 15 continuous days of early voting. It looks like Republicans will put up a filibuster, which must be kind of infuriating. You’re just about the last Democrat to publicly stand behind the filibuster, even opposing a carve-out to raise the debt ceiling.
I spoke to Natalie Tennant, the current secretary of state in West Virginia. She was impressed by how as secretary of state you implemented the 2002 Help America Vote Act, enacted after the 2000 Florida recount, which required massive updating of America’s voting systems. It wasn’t the vote-at-home goal much favored by activists, but it made a repeat of the Bush-Gore debacle less likely. You had to take on a lot of powerful country clerks to get this done. During that same time, you made early voting a state policy. “He went beyond the Help America Vote Act for West Virginia and instituted and helped to get passed by our legislature early voting,” Tennant told me. “Early voting seems like a commonsense approach. Well, why wouldn’t you have it? It’s what we’ve had in West Virginia since 2002. And there are some states where you still don’t have early voting.” You’ve got accomplishments to be proud of, which is why Al Sharpton, who pushed you to support the much more expansive For the People Act you rejected, has said kind things about your voting record and is a supporter of the Freedom to Vote Act.
So here’s the deal you can make—one that should appeal to both your fiscally conservative side and your pro-voting side. The midway point between $3.5 trillion and $1.5 trillion is $2.5 trillion. The final number will be closer to yours than to the progressives—and they feel like they already caved by bringing it down from north of $6 trillion. (And it’s paid for! This isn’t inflationary.) In the end, you’re going to get most of what you want on reconciliation. You’ll get the energy changes you want. You’ll get some kind of means test on the child tax credit. You’ll get a final spending number much closer to what you want. You told Schumer in your agreement that you wanted an end to quantitative easing—even if it’s up to the Fed, not the Democratic leader. And, by luck, that’s what’s happening. You’re going to win a lot more than AOC.
But here’s where you can give. If you can bring yourself to do a carve-out on voting, let’s get the Freedom to Vote Act passed. There are Republicans who’d like to vote for it but won’t bother as long as a filibuster can kill it. If you get it to a vote, it won’t be the kind of party line vote you prefer to avoid. It would be good for the country, and you know it.
I know you are the last of the filibuster defenders in your party, at least among those publicly willing to say so. But the filibuster is more likely to die if you don’t give it some room to breathe. What, after all, is reconciliation but a recognition that the filibuster is too constraining? There’s a lot to be said for a carve-out for this bill.
Okay, but suppose you can’t get your former-football-player arms around a filibuster exemption for your own bill. In that case, you could get behind a much-needed reform of the Electoral Count Act, as my colleague Bill Scher suggested, which would go after the ambiguities in the process between Election Day and the presidential inauguration, most notably making the role of the vice president entirely ceremonial when it comes to reading electors’ ballots, lest we have another January 6. (You were rightly peeved when the Senate GOP filibustered a January 6 commission.) You’re an institutionalist and should be able to get behind something like this. At the very least, promise Democrats that you’ll do it. It’s in line with your values, and if they’re smart, the libs will realize that clean elections are worth $1 trillion in new entitlements.
The time has come to bring reconciliation in for a landing. Be a gracious winner on the spending side of reconciliation and add to your excellent work on voting rights, and everyone will come out ahead.