“Giddy” is not a word people use to describe Jon Tester. The towering senior U.S. senator from Montana is blunt and pragmatic. In the halls of Congress, he’s one of the last surviving rural Democrats. When he’s not in Washington, D.C., Tester runs a dirt farm in Montana that’s been in his family for three generations.
A dirt-farming rural Democrat knows better than to overhype. So it came as a surprise when, one day this winter, Tester showed up visibly excited at the office of his friend Michael Bennet, one of Colorado’s two Democratic senators, to share a tantalizing piece of information.
“I think we’re gonna get this voting-rights thing done,” he said to Bennet.
“You got to be kidding me,” Bennet said.
Tester said that Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a critical swing vote on sweeping voting-rights reforms, had signaled his support for the bill and, more crucially, the parliamentary-rules change needed to bypass a Republican filibuster of that bill. “I think it’s gonna happen,” Tester said.
For the previous six months, Tester and two of his colleagues, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Angus King of Maine, had lobbied Manchin on voting rights and the fate of the filibuster. On weekends and holidays, on conference calls and huddled in one another’s hideaways in the bowels of the Capitol, Kaine, King, and Tester had urged Manchin to support his party’s proposal for overhauling the country’s voting laws.
They needed him, with Senate Democrats holding onto the barest majority possible — 50 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tiebreaker. Not a single Republican had said they would support the voting bill, which left Democrats with only one path to passage: Change the filibuster, the procedural tactic that requires a 60-vote majority to advance most types of legislation. Manchin had remained steadfast in his opposition to this plan, arguing that the filibuster protected small states like his and forced lawmakers to seek bipartisan compromise. Yet during months of conversations with Kaine, King, and Tester, Manchin had increasingly lamented the dysfunction in the Senate. He wanted, as he put it, “some good rule changes to make the place work better.”
By early January, Manchin had given the impression — at least according to his colleagues — that he was ready to amend the filibuster in a way that would open a path to passing voting rights. At the end of one of their calls, Tester recalls saying that with everyone in agreement on a filibuster deal, all they had to do was put the finishing touches on the voting legislation itself and they were ready to proceed. “Yeah,” Manchin replied, according to Tester.
A “yes” vote from Manchin could not have been more critical for free and fair elections. The Republican Party responded to Joe Biden’s victory with a backlash on the right to vote. Last year, GOP-run legislatures passed 34 laws in at least 19 states that limit access to voting, put partisan operatives in charge of running elections, and make it harder to participate in American democracy. At the same time, a belief that the last election was somehow stolen or fraudulent — the so-called Big Lie — has become an article of faith for many Republicans.
In response to this onslaught, Democrats in Congress introduced multiple pieces of legislation and vowed to pass the bills in time for the 2022 midterms. In public, Democratic leaders spoke in existential terms about the need for reform. “Failure is not an option,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. In private, lawmakers and activists predicted victory, arguing that the importance of the issue would overcome the challenge of unifying a 50-member caucus.
They were wrong.
Rolling Stone interviewed more than 30 key figures inside and outside of Congress to understand how the most ambitious voting-rights bill in generations and the Democratic Party’s main policy response to the Jan. 6 insurrection ended in failure. The blame for this defeat, sources say, lies with multiple parties: Manchin either strung along his party for months with no intention of actually supporting the reforms or gave indications to his colleagues that he was on board only to reverse his position on multiple occasions. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, miscalculated that if they could flip Manchin, another swing vote, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, would follow his lead. As for the White House, these sources say, President Biden — despite saying as a candidate that “one of the first things I’ll do as president” is restore the Voting Rights Act — never seemed fully committed to passing voting-rights legislation. When Biden, who had vowed to run an “FDR-sized presidency,” did inject himself into the negotiations late in the fight, his contributions did more harm than good.
Manchin spokeswoman Sam Runyon says the senator “never said he was open to eliminating the filibuster.” If his colleagues believed that, she adds, they were mistaken. The White House responds by saying just because “we didn’t get the result we wanted, we can’t say the power of the presidency wasn’t behind it.” Nevertheless, a question lingers: Why did Democrats’ efforts fail?
“It was like riding a roller coaster,” Sen. Tester tells Rolling Stone. “There were many nights when I went to bed and I thought, ‘This thing is done. We just have to hammer out the details.’ But then something would always happen,” he added. “I don’t know what happened. I can guess. But I don’t know.”
One day last spring, Sen. Kaine got a call from Sen. Schumer, the Democratic leader. The House of Representatives had passed the For the People Act, a massive bill that sought to make it easier to vote, drag so-called dark money into the sunlight, combat gerrymandering, and modernize election equipment. Now, it was the Senate’s turn to take up the For the People Act. Every Senate Democrat had endorsed the bill except for one: Manchin. Schumer knew that Kaine had a good working relationship with Manchin dating back to their days as governors, and so according to Kaine, Schumer asked him, “Can you try to get Manchin on this bill?”
Kaine wasn’t on the judiciary or rules committees, but he made sense for other reasons. Before Kaine got into statewide politics in Virginia, he had worked as a civil-rights lawyer for 18 years, and voting rights had long been an obsession of his. The seat he now held in the Senate previously belonged to Harry Byrd Sr. and Harry Byrd Jr., two giants of 20th-century politics who were unapologetic racists and segregationists who opposed the landmark civil-rights laws of the 1960s and 1970s. The historical legacy of the Byrd family weighed on Kaine; so, too, did the more recent experience of witnessing firsthand an attack on the Capitol that was intended to disenfranchise 80 million people. “The seat that I hold and the moment in history in which I’m in the Senate, they have made this a cause unlike any other for me,” Kaine says.
Kaine began talking with Manchin about the For the People Act and what it would take for Manchin to support it. Manchin had concerns about giving the federal government more power to approve or reject voting-rule-changes at the local level. The broad use of consent decrees made Manchin fear that “savvy lawyers could go into cash-strapped localities” and bog those places down in lawsuits about voting practices. Mostly, though, Manchin couldn’t support Congress approving an 800-page bill about American elections along strict party lines. Doing so, he explained, “will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy.” Republicans needed to be a part of the process.
On this point, Kaine knew he had a problem. It would take 10 Senate Republicans to join all 50 Democrats to pass any voting changes. Only six Republicans had voted in favor of a bipartisan panel modeled after the 9/11 Commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. “I said, ‘That is the North Star,’ ” Kaine recalls. “ ‘We will never get more votes than that from them for anything in the voting space.’ ” What’s more, a Republican senator (whom Kaine declined to name) told him that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had two red lines: voting rights and campaign-finance reform. “Those are his only two thou-shalt-nots,” the unnamed GOP senator told Kaine. (McConnell’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
The path to passage for any voting law would instead require reforming the filibuster. Kaine and his colleagues needed to find a way to persuade Manchin to support such a move. Democrats also needed to do the same with Sen. Sinema from Arizona. Unlike Manchin, Sinema had co-sponsored the For the People Act and considered herself a vocal supporter of stronger voting protections. Yet from the moment she joined the Senate, Sinema opposed any changes to the filibuster. Despite her clear position, some Senate Democrats as well as leading activists believed that Sinema would not want to be the lone “no” vote on reform if Manchin signed on. “All along our theory was: Get Manchin, and if we get Manchin, we get Sinema,” a source involved in the negotiations tells Rolling Stone.
One Friday in July, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer met with President Biden at the White House. Eventually, the discussion turned to voting rights and the filibuster. When the time came to change the Senate rules for voting rights, Biden told them, he would take an active role lobbying any wavering Senate Democrats. According to a source briefed on the White House’s position, Biden told Schumer: “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.”
Up to that point, senators and activists saw the White House as MIA in the voting-rights push. Anonymous quotes given by people close to the White House voiced skepticism about the prospect of passing any voting legislation in Congress. The Associated Press reported that “frustrated” White House aides “seeing the reality in the Senate, believe too much of a focus has been placed on federal legislative measures” to protect the vote. To activists, each negative blind quote felt like a stab in the back.
Civil-rights leaders pressed Biden to “take to the bully pulpit and fight” against the GOP’s voter-suppression laws, says Rev. Al Sharpton. Biden responded by traveling to Philadelphia and giving a rousing speech, but back in Washington, his priorities appeared to be elsewhere.
Throughout the fall of 2021, the president focused his negotiating energies on two other bills: a bipartisan deal to fund infrastructure repairs and the sweeping, $1.75 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) Act. Biden seemed to believe his transformative, FDR-esque moment had come, and he spent the next several months in talks with Manchin and Sinema to persuade them to support Build Back Better. Voting rights, by all indications, was a secondary concern.
In the background, though, Kaine kept up the pressure on Manchin. Even after Manchin declared his opposition to the original For the People Act in a widely read op-ed, saying he couldn’t envision passing such a bill with only Democratic votes, Kaine and several other Senate allies, a group that would come to include Tester and independent King, continued their talks with Manchin, asking him what it would take to get his support. They saw it as an encouraging sign that Manchin had said that “inaction is not an option” on protecting the right to vote. Eventually, Manchin took out a piece of paper and jotted down a list of priorities. He wanted automatic voter registration any time someone went to the DMV or interacted with state government. He wanted to make Election Day a federal holiday. He wanted a mandatory 15 days of early in-person voting in every state and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. His demand for some version of a voter ID requirement rankled liberal activists, but Democrats believed that to be a minor concession in exchange for passing the larger bill. The new measure would also include policies to stop future attempts at election subversion. The new bill, per Manchin’s request, would be named the Freedom to Vote Act.
But before Manchin would commit to the new bill and tweaking the filibuster, he wanted to try the Republicans again, with Kaine’s help. The two senators met with their GOP colleagues and offered them deals that Schumer hadn’t authorized. “We were trying every skeleton key on the key ring to see if we could unlock the door to get Republican support,” Kaine says.
One outcome of this exercise, Kaine says, was to show Manchin that no amount of good-faith bargaining would win over Republicans. Instead, McConnell and his caucus used the filibuster to block debate on every piece of democracy-related legislation introduced by Democrats. The same GOP senators who had sung the praises of the late John Lewis would not allow the Senate to even debate the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or the Freedom to Vote Act despite Manchin’s across-the-aisle outreach.
While Manchin remained opposed to filibuster reform in public, he began making comments in private meetings that seemed to suggest he was moving closer to yes. In a late-August meeting with a small group of West Virginia faith leaders, Manchin said that he valued the filibuster but did not believe preserving the filibuster outweighed protecting voting rights, according to a person who was briefed on the meeting. (Manchin’s spokeswoman disputes this characterization.) This was seen as an encouraging sign — short of a hard commitment, but evidence that Manchin could be moved. Democrats and outside activists agreed that any talk of “abolishing” or “weakening” the filibuster would scare off Manchin, so they framed their lobbying blitz as an effort to “restore the Senate” and make it work better.
A filibuster-reform proposal crafted by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and several others was a far cry from eliminating the filibuster. The proposal had three parts: It lowered the 60-vote threshold needed to begin debating a bill to a simple majority; guaranteed that each party could offer at least five amendments to a bill; and replaced the secret filibuster with the talking filibuster, allowing the minority party to block a vote for weeks and possibly months so long as it had a member speaking on the Senate floor. But when that extended debate period was up, the Senate would vote and a simple majority was good enough to pass the bill. “It eliminated the potential of one person having veto power over the other 99,” Kaine says. “It restored the filibuster back to what I thought the filibuster was supposed to be.”
With Manchin deeply involved in the negotiations over filibuster reform, Senate Democrats and their outside partners looked to Biden to follow through on his pledge to pressure Manchin and Sinema. “The key for Biden never was what he was going to say publicly,” says Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of the clean-government group Democracy 21. “The key was what he was going to do in the endgame.” But the White House kept its focus on Build Back Better even as the talks there showed no sign of a breakthrough. Manchin refused to support the expanded child-tax credit in the bill, claiming it would incentivize parents not to work, and he opposed several key climate provisions as a senator who represented a coal-producing state and earned a small fortune from holdings in his family’s coal-processing business. He wanted to shelve the deal until a later time and, according to Kaine and Tester, turn his attention fully to voting rights and the filibuster.
A decisive moment came on Dec. 14, when Manchin went to the White House to meet with Biden. According to two sources briefed on the meeting, Manchin had expected a productive conversation about pausing BBB and shifting focus to voting rights and the filibuster. Instead, Biden was upset. He criticized Manchin for what he felt was the senator’s duplicity during the BBB talks, accusing Manchin of backtracking on a pledge to support BBB he’d made weeks earlier during a visit to Biden’s house in Wilmington. (Manchin’s spokeswoman says this was “not a correct accounting of this meeting” but declined to say why. The White House wouldn’t comment on it.) Later that week Manchin appeared on Fox News and declared BBB dead. “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” he said. “This is a no.”
The next morning, Manchin met again with his filibuster working group. The progress Kaine, King, and Tester felt they had made over the preceding months was slipping away. “[Biden] chose to sequence the debate by insisting he deal first with Build Back Better and only then would he consider voting rights, and that sequencing was costly,” says Wade Henderson, the interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. But King, Kaine, and Tester believed that they could still win over Manchin despite the breakdown between Manchin and the White House. The four senators stayed in constant contact over the holiday break and into the new year. Even when Kaine was stranded overnight on I-95 on his way from Richmond, Virginia, to attend a voting-rights meeting in Washington, with nothing but an orange and Dr. Pepper to fuel him, he called into the meeting from his car.
His colleagues’ commitment was not lost on Manchin. It was soon afterward that Manchin gave one of his most encouraging signs related to the filibuster, according to Tester, which prompted the senator from Montana to relay that promising news to Bennet. Kaine, too, believed they had gotten Manchin to yes. “I thought we were there a couple of times,” Kaine says. “But maybe that was just me.”
Finally, after months of waiting, the moment had arrived. Democrats and voting-rights activists sprang into action for a final frantic push to persuade Manchin and Sinema to support filibuster changes and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and Freedom to Vote Act. Schumer told allies on one call that he had mobilized every high-profile surrogate possible, including Oprah Winfrey, to sway the two senators. Biden traveled to Atlanta and delivered a fiery speech calling on the Senate to deliver new voting protections. “I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” he said. “At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Two days later, Biden said he would make an appearance at a private meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus to rally the group before a scheduled vote on the John Lewis and Freedom to Vote bills. Just as Biden was about to head to the Capitol that day, Sen. Sinema appeared on the Senate floor to give a speech. There had been warning signs: Sinema’s recent interactions with civil-rights leaders and other influential progressive groups had left the groups frustrated. On a Zoom call with the heads of the Leadership Conference, NAACP, Urban League, and other African American organizations, Sinema seemed to be tuned out. She refused to turn her camera on, and her disembodied voice suggested she was dismissive of the arguments put before her on why she should vote to amend the filibuster. “As my grandmother would say, she blew by that argument like a freight train blowing past trash,” says Henderson of the Leadership Conference.
The attempts to win over Sinema had come in the final stages of the filibuster battle. John LaBombard, who was Sinema’s top spokesman at the time, says there was much less of an effort to persuade the Arizona senator to change her mind than there had been with Joe Manchin, even though Sinema’s vote was just as crucial as Manchin’s in the final count. LaBombard says he couldn’t escape the impression that Democratic leadership either took Sinema’s vote for granted or considered her long-standing opposition to changing the filibuster somehow less sincere or authentic than Manchin’s. “It would be a mistake on anyone’s part to engage in any wishful thinking that Sen. Sinema’s policy or tactical positions are somehow contingent on the positions of other colleagues and are not sincerely held,” LaBombard says.
On the morning of Biden’s planned visit to the Democratic caucus in mid-January, Sinema gave one of the longest floor speeches of her career. She restated that she would not under any circumstances get rid of the 60-vote filibuster. “When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes,” she said.
Soon after Sinema finished speaking, Biden arrived at the closed-door Senate Democratic caucus meeting. Anyone hoping for a rousing call to action or LBJ-style browbeating was disappointed. Biden drifted from one side of the room to the other, at times speaking so softly that senators struggled to hear him, according to one source in the room. “His style was very much ‘I’m here among friends,’ ” the source says. “He decided not to give the stump speech of someone who stands up and says, ‘This is the moment that history changes in America and you all decide which way it goes.’ ” When Manchin asked Biden a question about the history of the filibuster, Biden’s answer was so unconvincing that Schumer motioned to Sen. Jeff Merkley to intervene and give a more substantive response, according to multiple witnesses.
Once the meeting was over, Biden walked to the crowd of reporters gathered outside the room and did something inexplicable: With the final vote still days away, he declared defeat. “I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure,” he told the press. “Like every other major civil-rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time. We missed this time.”
It was mystifying to the senators and the activist groups that had spent the past year and tens of millions of dollars trying to get this far. Yet it also felt representative of the Biden White House’s half-assed and confusing role in the entire voting-rights campaign. “We have seen what an all-out effort from the White House looks like when they are trying to pass a bill, and we never saw that same level of effort from the White House to pass the Freedom to Vote Act,” says Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and End Citizens United Action Fund, one of the leading outside groups pushing for voting-rights and filibuster reform. There were brief moments of help from the White House, she adds, “but we never got a White House that was fully bought into winning this fight.”
The White House declined to comment on the record for this story. A senior administration official, who refused to be named, says these criticisms of the administration are “people playing Monday-morning quarterback.” Within months of taking office, the official adds, Biden said he supported restoring the talking filibuster. He gave speeches and made private entreaties to senators. As for Manchin and Sinema, the official says, “I don’t think there was anything the president could do to change those two votes on the filibuster.”
Going into the final vote on filibuster reform on Jan. 19, it was clear that the votes weren’t there. Sinema had given her forceful floor speech, and Manchin announced he would not in the end vote to alter the filibuster. In a statement sent to Rolling Stone, Manchin said: “Since coming to the Senate in 2010, I have come to understand that the filibuster is our last check on power no matter who is in the majority. And it has protected our great nation from volatile political swings for more than 233 years.”
When Schumer called the final vote on the combined John Lewis Voting Rights and Freedom to Vote acts, Republicans filibustered the legislation yet again. And when Democrats at last forced a vote on changing the filibuster, Manchin and Sinema voted with the Republicans against it. Some Democrats and activists couldn’t help but notice that Vice President Harris, who had come to the Senate to preside over the vote, left before it officially finished.
In a recent interview, Kaine, the Democratic senator, said that while he and many of his colleagues are “discouraged” by how the voting-rights battle finished, he hasn’t given up.
“The guys that held my seat, Harry Byrd Sr. and then Harry Byrd Jr., were masters at using the filibuster to try to block passage of civil-rights legislation, including voting-rights legislation,” Kaine says. “But it didn’t stop. The temporary setbacks were not accepted as permanent setbacks, and we’re not going to accept them either.”
When I last spoke with Sen. Tester, he had just come from a classified briefing on China. He drew a connection between what he’d heard in that briefing and the voting-rights push. “The gridlock and the division here in the United States, they [the Chinese] love it,” Tester says. “It plays into their hands; it plays into what they want to do. And so consequently, we are where we are, and we may not even realize that oftentimes we’re our own worst enemy.”