Joe Manchin Gets Candid With Billionaire Donors in Leaked Audio
Ryan Grim: Lee Fang, welcome to Deconstructed.
Lee Fang: Hey, Ryan, thanks for having me.
RG: Hey, so, you’ve got your hands on some interesting audio from a recent meeting between Senator Joe Manchin and the big money group No Labels. Can you tell us a little bit about who No Labels is and why are they meeting with Joe Manchin at this particular moment?
Lee Fang: Well, No Labels is a political group that was founded a little over a decade ago, claiming to bring both parties together to get rid of partisan dysfunction in politics,, to basically break through the gridlock, get rid of this polarization that’s constant in Congress, and support common-sense solutions. Now, this group is controversial, because a lot of the critics say that it’s more of a stalking horse for very wealthy interests, for Wall Street, for a number of billionaires that back this group that claim to oppose partisanship, but really are seeking a consensus preserving the tax code that’s very beneficial to the rich, that’s very skeptical of progressive reforms. And generally speaking, this group has been very engaged in politics. They spend a lot through super PAC and a range of different political action committees. This group basically helps elect moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. And, in this particular political moment, with a very divided Senate and a closely divided House, they’re trying to wield as much power as possible to put the brakes on some of the more progressive reforms that Democrats are proposing.
RG: And Joe Manchin feels like their kind of ideal senator to be to be sitting down with. Where’s he at nowadays?
Well, all attention in Washington is on Joe Manchin right now. He’s got the keys to the rest of the next two years in terms of whether there will be significant political reform in the Biden administration moving forward. He’s basically the center of whether the filibuster should be reformed. Should that threshold of 60 votes be brought down? Should it be done away with completely? He’s kind of at the center of that.
And, adjacent to that, he’s also kind of setting the conditions for the infrastructure bill, a component which is tax reform. So these are big, meaty issues. And the political future of this bill rests on his shoulders, because the question is this infrastructure bill going to be bipartisan? And are they going to include a lot of Republican voices which want to water down the tax component, really bring down the size of the infrastructure bill, by many, many, many billions of dollars? Or should the infrastructure bill be basically a Democrat bill that is large in scope that encompasses not just energy and traditional infrastructure, but human infrastructure in terms of job training and taking care of other kinds of social welfare programs that arguably are also part of the wider societal infrastructure?
So Joe Manchin holds the keys to this crossroad, and there’s a lot of attention on him, and we obtained a recording of a major donor meeting with No Labels. The main speaker was Joe Manchin, this was last Monday, this is a large conference call on Zoom, and many billionaires were in attendance, folks like Louis Bacon, the billionaire hedge fund manager; Kenneth Tuchman, the outsourcing billionaire and founder of TeleTech; the private equity chief Howard Marks, also a billionaire at Oaktree Capital Management, one of the largest private equity firms. Interestingly, we don’t know if Paul Tudor Jones was an attendee, he’s another kind of famous hedge fund billionaire, but a phone number connected to his office had kind of signed in. It didn’t turn on its camera, so we don’t know if Paul Tudor Jones himself was in attendance, but someone in his office had called in.
So these are some of the biggest voices on Wall Street. And these are the folks who have a lot of power in Washington, though you don’t see them on CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox News, they’re the ones that are shaping policy but are often in the background. So this donor call meeting was very interesting.
RG: Yeah, and it’s really a fascinating wide-ranging conversation and more open than you hear publicly. There are some things that Manchin talks about — we will get into them here — that the press has been hounding him on for answers, and he’s been stonewalling them. And here he just kind of comes forward with it.
Is there any particular part in the meeting where you think we should start?
LF: Well, just the beginning of the call is interesting. The call opens with Nancy Jacobson, this is one of the founders of No Labels who helped found the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress, bringing together these moderate members, real mover and shaker in Washington. And she’s basically laying out some hard-nosed politics saying that the reason we have influence is because we can raise serious dollars, and we’re going to basically dispense this money to make sure that people who agree with us can’t be pushed by either extreme or any special interest, that they are given the political leeway to preserve the filibuster, to kind of preserve the policies and rules that that they favor. And she basically lays out, along with Andrew Bursky, the head of another private equity fund in Connecticut, who’s an executive board member of No Labels, the two of them — Jacobson and Bursky — are talking about how they need to raise money and dispense campaign checks, keep their allies in Congress.
Nancy Jacobson: Now the truth is, there’s no other group in the center that’s putting the hard dollars together. And so you may see these big numbers with the campaigns but that’s a lot of soft dollars, it’s a lot of super PACs, it’s things they don’t control. They love the hard dollars, and I would be hard-pressed to think of any other group that can raise that sort of money. Our hope is at least $20 million over the cycle with this group, and hopefully keep doubling it as we go.
So we’re waiting, right Andy? We’re gonna see what happens with this next vote. And we want to reward those people that, you know, get to party solutions.
RG: And so Lee, first of all, give people quick civics lesson on the difference between hard dollars and super PACs, and then I want to zero in on this remarkable line from her, “We’re waiting, right Andy? We’re gonna see what happens with this next vote. And we want to reward those people that, you know, get to party solutions.”
LF: Well look, there’s a very clear line in terms of hard and soft dollars. Hard dollars are disclosed, and direct, and limited. Members of Congress can only raise a few thousand dollars from each individual, I believe just $5,000 from a PAC, but something like $2,700 from an individual.
In contrast, soft dollars are unlimited campaign spending, that’s money that goes to dark money groups, to super PACs; individuals, or corporations, or unions can give unlimited amounts. And with Citizens United, that kind of blew open the lid for soft money, legalizing it and normalizing it. So groups like No Labels can raise unlimited amounts and spend those dollars in terms of independent expenditures to an unlimited degree.
RG: Right. And so a candidate is happy to have a super PAC at his or her back. But first of all, a super PAC can’t coordinate with the candidate. So the super PAC just has to kind of follow the candidates lead publicly, and also has to pay much more for its advertising. So $1 you give to a candidate is worth a lot more than the dollar you spend through a super PAC because of this way that there’s a federal law that candidates get discounted television rates, so if the money goes directly to the candidate, the candidate gets to control exactly how it’s spent, and gets cheaper rates. And so Nancy is saying if people are voting the right way, we’re going to reward those people, but we’re going to wait to see how they’re doing.
I think there’s been inflation. I think it’s now $2,800, by the way, that an individual can give. It’s not a lot individually, but what she’s promising is it’ll add up to $20 million or so.
LF: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s not exactly clear how they’re planning to transfer these dollars as they’re describing it. But they’re ensuring that they’re going to, in their words, give out checks to a number of House members in the range of $50,000.
RG: Right. So let’s hear Andy answering her. “Any thoughts on that?”
NJ: Any thoughts on that?
Andy Bursky: Yeah, I think it’s a really important question. And I think it’s easy to get almost frozen in place when you see the size of these campaigns and question whether we can have an impact.
I think Nancy nailed it. It’s dollars at the margin, in part, and it’s dollars that they can throw hard-money knowledge at. I will tell you that I participated in the last cycle when we handed out checks to a number of our members of the House in the range of $50,000. And in many cases they volunteer the fact that was the single largest check they received overall in their campaigns.
So, and think about joining the House, you’re there for 730 days, unless you hit the leap year and maybe you get 731. And for the vast majority of those days, you’re spending four hours on the telephone, dialing for dollars. And so what this does, aside from sending the very strong message that there are folks who will have your back if you take a vote of bipartisan nature that may not be popular within your party, it also, in a real way, frees them up to do more work, because they’re spending less time raising those funds. So it’s powerful. And there’s just no question that we have had, and we continue to have, impact.
RG: So Lee, you can see that Sen. Manchin is in his Senate office and all senators know there’s no, you’re not allowed to have a fundraiser in Senate property, in office, or in the Capitol. This is an interesting meeting that we’re hearing, off the rip, to be having so much conversation about money. Do you think that this is typical for a non-fundraiser, donor meeting, and it’s just unusual that we got our hands on it?
LF: It’s hard to say. I’m sure these rules are bent or broken. And that the truth never escapes because members are covert about fundraising on the Capitol grounds or in the legislative office buildings. But, generally speaking, lawmakers tend to avoid this, because it occupies kind of a gray area. The rules clearly defined, you’re not allowed to solicit or engage in campaign activities in legislative office buildings. But this is a donor call; they’re discussing raising and spending campaign money, super PAC money; there’s tons of billionaires who have given to campaigns, who were asked to give to campaigns on this call; but Manchin himself isn’t doing the soliciting. So he might be technically clear of a violation, but it’s certainly skirting the limit here.
RG: Yeah. And to be extra clear, throughout the entire meeting, Manchin never once directly solicits any money. They’re strategizing. They’re talking about campaign money, but he doesn’t say: I would like No Labels, or any of these donors, to fund my campaign. He never does that.
And we reached out to both No Labels and to Sen. Manchin. So let me quickly read statements from the two of them.
So, from Sam Runyon, a spokesperson for Sen. Manchin, tells The Intercept: “Sen. Manchin was discussing the issue of money in politics and the impact campaign donations have on senators and members of Congress. He was not soliciting donations for himself, or anyone else.”
Margaret White, who is the co-executive director of No Labels, provided the following statement to The Intercept: “The group who engaged with Sen. Manchin is motivated by a concern about the future of our nation. This was not a fundraising call and any suggestion to the contrary is a false and obvious attempt to undermine Sen. Manchin, because he is one of the rare leaders in Washington who refuses to just tow the party line. It’s often a lonely place to be. No Labels is proud to stand with him.”
So Lee, what do you make of those two statements?
LF: They’re coherent, you know? They don’t want to [laughs] — they don’t want to be running afoul of ethics rules, congressional rules, so of course they’re gonna say that no rules were broken. I think it’s up to the Ethics Committee if anything was broken.
But look, at the end of the day, they do care deeply about their relationship with Manchin. And this was a meeting with their biggest donors. I mean, the names on this list are the people over the last four or five years [that] have funneled millions upon millions of dollars into No Labels, various PACs. No Labels not only has a super PAC, but they have this array of different kind of PACs that are set up with really kind of vanilla names and perhaps their named this just to kind of go under the radar, but they have United for Progress PAC, Citizens for a Strong America PAC, United Together PAC, Progress Tomorrow PAC. So this is a group that raises big dollars, spends big dollars in campaigns, a call with donors directing them to continue giving money, and that money will influence certain political decisions, it’s a very political call — arguably a fundraising call. But again, Manchin didn’t solicit directly, so perhaps he’s not in violation of the rules.
RG: And we talked earlier about how much interesting openness there is in this call. If you have somewhere you want to go next, let me know. But if not, we could jump to this portion where he talks about this moment during the 2017 tax cut fight, where McConnell kind of sells him out at the last minute, and then he tells the donors that as a result, that 2017 tax cut wasn’t bipartisan and now it’s on the chopping block. And that will be news in Washington that Manchin believes that the 2017 tax cut is on the table for financing, either for infrastructure or for something else.
Sen. Joe Manchin: I truly believe if you want to separate this country further and divide us more, and you pass something on a hot issue that has so many variables it that’s only going to be — only going to be supported by the partisan side, whether it be a Democrat or Republican pushing something, you know, it makes it —
I’ll give you a perfect example: the 2017 tax cut. You know that’s going to be changed. That was done with no Democrat — even me not going to vote for it. OK? And I tried. And they said, the last day before they voted, “Joe, we don’t need your vote, we have enough people voting.” And so then everything I bought to the table is thrown out the window.
But both sides do it. Both sides do it. And it’s not lasting. So here we are, forty years later, thinking about making tax cut changes again. If we did something in a bipartisan way, it has what we call long legs. It can run, it can stay there. It has endurance. And that’s what we’re looking for. And that’s what the world is looking for from America.
RG: So for people who couldn’t quite make out the audio, he’s saying that McConnell, at the last minute, told Manchin he didn’t need his vote. And so all of the things that Manchin wanted stuffed into the 2017 tax cut were thrown out the window. And so he voted no. And so now he’s more willing to undo it.
Lee, what do you think of Manchin’s argument? And had you heard that story before about how close he came to voting for it?
LF: No, I had no idea that Manchin was close to voting for the Trump tax cuts. I know, they probably entertained his vote.
But this gets at a few things that’s interesting in this call one. Senators as powerful as Manchin, rather than tell his voters in West Virginia or the press these interesting anecdotes about how the policy, the sausage, is made, he tells these hedge fund billionaires.
Second, rather than explaining the problem with the merits of the bill, whether it’s in the public interest, whether it’s good policy, whether it’s — whatever — it’s good for the economy or how it affects the deficit, what have you, he’s instead obsessed with the appearance of bipartisanship.
Now, he might be right that, in general, bipartisan reforms are more durable; they’re less likely to be repealed or become a partisan football. I think there is something to that argument. But it’s interesting that that’s the only argument he makes. He does not talk about the other elements of the bill [laughs], whether it’s good or bad policy, and just about this kind of obsession of the appearance of bipartisanship.
RG: So, at another point, he does talk about the corporate tax cut and where he stands on that, and electric vehicles.
JM: We got a piece of legislation. And really what it is is about $570 billion or $580 billion of new investment into truly traditional infrastructure. And now, on top of that, we have close to $200-$300 billion in what we call private partnerships. That means, basically getting the private sector to do what they would do, incentivize them, without having it scored against the debt of the nation. We don’t think we should add more debt than needed, especially when the private sector has always been willing to go if the market was there, and that would be, say, electric vehicles and charging stations, we don’t have to spend all the Treasury’s money to get into that. The private sector is happy to get into it. If we give them some pretty attractive financing incentives, they’ll jump in at a quicker pace to get preparing as a transition is coming.
So those types of things. Then you have about $320 billion of what we call [indistinct]. And that’s, as [indistinct] red states, we do that, it’s a five-year program, that we’re doing that on things that we can do with the trust funds, the highway trust fund, which puts taxes on gasoline and things of that sort.
So when we put them all together, you’re at about that [indistinct] and we have paid for all of this.
So we’ll just say, they agree, the majority of Democrats and Republicans can agree, as we get into the caucuses now, the broader base caucuses, there’s a lot of my caucus that believes that they want to do a lot more in the energy realm, if you will, climate. And we’re willing to work in a responsible pathway forward, but we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot.
RG: And so from here, man just starts talking about the key debate between progressives in Congress, both in the Senate and the House, and more moderates, where they’re pushing for climate to be included in the infrastructure package. And there are now a number of members of the Senate and House and progressive outside groups, Sunrise Movement, etc., who are saying if climate is not in, then they’re going to block it. So let’s play now to see how interesting it is how Manchin himself is thinking about climate and the infrastructure.
JM: The IEA, International Energy Agency, there are some good statistics we’ll send to you, Nancy and Margaret and Jill will get to everybody, so you can show what’s happening. But 90 percent of the emissions are coming from Asia, really, and mostly China. That’s where the increase in all this pollution in climate is coming from, and we’ve been able to reduce ours.
Perfect example is this: They keep talking about stopping all coal-fired utility plants, but we have 504 operating in the country, in the United States of America; there’s over 1,660 that are operating in the world, coal-fired plants. We have the cleanest in the world, in America, we’ve reduced our emissions in the last two decades; they’ve increased theirs tremendously.
And of the 90 percent of the emissions coming from Asia, mostly, the biggest part in China, they’re only investing about 20 percent in new, climate-change technology. So it’s up to us to lead the nation in carbon-capture sequestration, which may be the number one thing that truly might save the world and climate.
The other thing is there’s 1,063 coal-fired plants built in or in design right now around the world. And we don’t hear them talking about that either. So what we have to do is find a pathway for them. And we will. We’ll work with them. But they’re trying to say that human infrastructure, the proposal that President Biden put out, was $2.2-$2.3 trillion.
RG: So Lee, that took an interesting turn toward carbon capture. This doesn’t sound like somebody wants to invest much in climate because it’s all Asia’s fault. But, on the other hand, he sees an opportunity to invest heavily in carbon capture. What was your read on that?
LF: The senator is skeptical of electric-charging stations, but extremely excited for carbon-capture, the type of technology that would allow coal-fired power plants to stay in business. And as a senator from the premier coal state, that makes sense from a parochial point of view, but might not make sense for the climate.
I mean, I’ve read that there are some breakthroughs in coal-capture, sequestration technology, but it’s still not there. The technology simply doesn’t exist yet to capture that pollution and make sure it doesn’t get into the atmosphere. But Manchin is certainly representing the coal interest in this discussion, right?
RG: Right. And I’m willing to get canceled and say that it’s enough of a crisis that you really should push on every technological front, and you really shouldn’t let the argument that this is what the coal companies want get in the way of it. Because, as he said, they actually are building another 1000-plus coal plants as we speak around the world, and we have to do something about that because we have been unable to shut all of them down.
But that’s neither here nor there. Nobody cares what I think. That’s Manchin’s take, and Manchin’s take is the only one that matters at this point. And this is an example of what you pointed out earlier that this is an interesting debate to be had up publicly, but we’re not having it publicly. It’s just being had among donors on Zoom calls.
Another example of that is his discussion of the voting rights bill.
JM: The other thing I would say on voting. You know, you’ve heard of H.R.1 and S.1, For the People, and you have the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which I support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, I think we need to make sure that elections are accessible, they’re fair, and they’re secure.
But I can do this — we just finished up the comparison — and I can give all of you, if you want to share it again, Nancy and Margaret and [indistinct], whoever wants to get a copy, I’ll give you a copy. Because one of the reasons they’re saying Joe Manchin’s against the For the People Act, H.R.1, is because there’s no Republicans. Well, I definitely want Republicans, but I can tell you one thing: If we made some adjustments, maybe we could get some Republicans, because they can’t even get me the way the bill was introduced.
RG: Let’s pause that right there for a second. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but for Manchin to complain that he’s being publicly attacked for objecting to the For the People Act because there are no Republican supporters, and complaining that nobody has focused on his objections, is precisely because he has refused to detail his objections in public. And he has only said that the reason he opposes it is because there are no Republicans on it. And, in fact, last session he co-sponsored the For the People Act. So whatever policy objections he has to it, are apparently new.
Lee, what did you make of this passage?
LF: Yeah, no, I think it’s really interesting. And it just kind of shows a little bit of political hypocrisy, especially, as you mentioned, since he was a previous sponsor.
On the one hand, he says, OK, my critics just expect me to support this once it becomes bipartisan; it wasn’t bipartisan the last time he sponsored it. So I don’t see the coherent argument here.
RG: There doesn’t seem to be one. But let’s hear more of that argument.
JM: I’m going to give you the reasons why I oppose parts of that legislation, and I’ll give you the support I have for the conclusive piece of legislation, which I think would really help voting rights. And that could happen if I have all of your input or anybody who wants to comment on that. Because there’s a process that we’ve gone through, and we just formalized that, and I’ll send it to y’all.
Margaret, I’ll give it to you or Nancy, and you can share with whoever wants to be part of it. Great.
RG: Right, so, the good news for people who were hopeful of voting rights passing, once they get over their anger at the process here, is that what he’s saying, and I’ve some reporting that backs this up, is that what he’s willing to do is take the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and beef it up substantially. Because the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would not even go into effect before the next election, and a lot of experts think that it might never go into effect, that the Supreme Court would just dismiss it just as quickly as it dismissed the Voting Rights Act in 2013. And so what he’s saying is that he’s open to taking important reforms from the For the People Act, and bringing them into the John Lewis Act. That certainly would be within the spirit of the John Lewis Act, because John Lewis himself actually wrote major portions of the For the People Act before he passed away, including Title I, which is the main election reforms.
So in this call he tells Nancy and Margaret that he’s going to send them his objections, and they can share it with whoever they want. Later in the call, he spells out some of what those objections are. Let’s play that.
JM: They’re talking about everything from: We want to stop the dark money. OK. I think we all want to stop the dark money. The bottom line, it should be fair, whether it’s a labor group, or whether it’s a corporate group, or a business group, it should all be fair by the campaign rules that they have to govern themselves by, and we have to oversee that. So it should be — I don’t care who spends money against them — I just don’t want you to have a campaign going against me and you’re calling if For the Sake of the Children or the Sisters of the Poor, and I’m behind it, we don’t know who it is until after the fact.
So I think basically when they say they don’t want to show IDs or you basically can’t purge the records. Well, you have to purge your records. I was the secretary of state. If you miss two elections, two national elections, it’s eight years, and we have a returning address that comes back “No to Sender” basically, it never gets to that person, then we got to purge them.
RG: So, Lee, do you read from that first part that he’s saying he’s comfortable with a lot of the campaign finance reform pieces around disclosure in the For the People Act?
LF: You know, it’s not perfectly clear to me. He’s definitely in favor of saying we need to stop dark money. But he’s saying that the current bill, or at least he’s implying, from the way I hear this, that it’s not currently fair that there might be some kind of carve-out for labor groups or other certain groups, and that it should equally stop dark money from both businesses and labor. But, generally speaking, that’s how the rules currently exist, or at least the rules that are proposed. So it’s not clear what he’s demanding.
RG: And he’s also in a conversation [laughs] with a Zoom call full of dark-money donors, but that’s neither here nor there. So then he moves onto his two other objections that he details:
JM: Also, same-day registration. We don’t have internet services in rural America. How can I know if you walk up for same day that you want to vote and register? I can’t check it to find out if you’re a citizen, if you actually live in the state, or whatever.
So there’s — I’m sending this to you all — and I’ll work with Nancy and Margaret to share it with everybody. And I think it should give you a good outlook of where I’m coming from, and how we’d evaluate.
Next of all, the S.1 Bill is about a 600-700 page bill, OK? Which is basically For the People. The Voting Rights Act bill which we’ve done, and Joe, you called your voters for it, and all of the four or five times it’s bipartisan. It’s about a 45-50 page bill, that basically puts guardrails on that we’re not going to let states basically make it almost impossible for people that don’t want support Black or Brown communities, or immigrants, or basically people that they don’t want to vote because they might not vote the way they want them to vote. Those are the things we’re trying to — you’re right. If you don’t have accessible, free, fair, and secure elections, and that’s the bedrock of democracy, we might be in serious problems having anyone that has any confidence in who we elect or paying attention to authority. That’s what scares me more than anything.
RG: Alright, Lee, so he details a number of objections there. It seems like he’s opposed to barring voter ID requirements, he’s opposed to automatic voter registration, he’s opposed to restricting purging of the voter rolls. Is this something that we knew before when it came to his reservations?
LF: I don’t believe he’s made these objections front and center or really public.
If you actually look last week in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, that’s the main paper in West Virginia, his state, Joe Manchin wrote a whole op-ed laying out his opposition to the For the People Act, this voting rights, civil rights bill from Democrats, and in this op-ed, he makes a number of arguments, but they’re largely about the lack of bipartisan support for this legislation. He does not make the argument that secretaries of state need to be purging their voter rolls, a very controversial dynamic that critics argue suppresses the vote by making it much harder for infrequent voters or people who have moved or whatever to know that they’re registered, to vote regularly, and people don’t realize they have to re-register to vote, and then they lose the ability to vote in an election.
And same-day voting that, again, if there are problems with registering that gives people the ability to vote if that they miss the deadline, or whatever, to participate in an election.
And in this op-ed that he published just last week, he doesn’t make these arguments, but he’s making these fairly detailed arguments to this group of mega-donors, including many billionaires. And he’s saying he’s gonna write down his detailed objections to the law and send them to Nancy Jacobson, the co-founder of No Labels, and then she will distribute it to the donors.
I mean, it’s really a completely different take, what he’s saying in public versus what he’s saying privately to this group of donors.
RG: Yep. Yep. And the most generous, most charitable read would be that he just hadn’t been paying attention to it up until the last few days. [Laughs.] But I hesitate to even credit that. And it fits with the pattern that you’d identified earlier.
And so for this to work, Democrats probably need to reform the filibuster. We’re unlikely to see 10 Republicans agree to even a watered down, Joe Manchin-style version of the, John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The most Manchin talks about money in this meeting is in the following clip. Let’s play that part:
JM: The bottom line is just find out who basically cares more about this country than they do about themselves. I don’t know how to tell you that. You would not be in the positions that you are, with the success you’ve had, if you couldn’t read people and tell if it’s self service or public service. And they can only B.S. you so long, pretty much the truth comes out, and right now what I’m asking for, I need to go back, I need to find three more good Republican senators that will vote for the commission, so that at least we can tamp them down, where people say Republicans won’t even do the simple lift, common sense, of basically voting to do a commission that was truly bipartisan.
So once that people — and it just really emboldens the far left saying, how’s that bipartisan working for you now, Joe? Those are the hard things. That’s what I need help in.
RG: Later, in this episode, we’ll talk more about the commission and Manchin’s interest in the commission.
But what he seems to be saying here, Lee, is that he’s getting a direct question from a donor about where they should direct their finances. And what he’s telling them is that look, I need help getting more Republicans to vote for this Jan. 6 commission, because it’s giving the far left all of this ammunition to say: Look, see, you can’t work with these Republicans? How are you going to cut a deal with them when they won’t even investigate the January 6th ransacking of the Capitol — that’s even after they were given everything they asked for on the commission.
So he’s saying: Those are the people that you need to send your money to? Which is, OK, I guess he’s trying to save democracy or something. But he’s coming pretty close there to saying that he would like people — I mean, he’s pretty much directly saying that he wants donors to finance Republicans so that they will in endorse the Jan. 6 commission, so that he can save the filibuster, so that he can then help those donors enact all of their much broader agenda.
Am I reading too much into that? What was your take on that segment?
LF: No, I had the same sense, Ryan, from listening to this.
I mean, if you Zoom out from 50,000 feet and look at this, it’s actually kind of remarkable. I mean, these are hedge fund, private equity, finance, billionaires, corporate executives, who want to preserve low taxes, preferential tax treatment; they’re concerned with the government stepping in and taking up the role that the private sector plays in various industries as well, perhaps in part of the infrastructure bill. So for those reasons, they want to preserve the filibuster, which is a procedural obstacle to changing any of those policies.
And what Manchin, I think, very cleverly points out is that the way you preserve the filibuster is by taking away the argument that Republicans can never come to the table, can never act in a bipartisan way. And that this very kind of — it has become a political football — but this very emotionally driven event, this event that’s become this huge spectacle that Democrats and many people across the country kind of obsess over and talk about, is this January 6 incident, that Democrats want this commission. And so what Manchin says, too, is what some of the Democratic Party want to do is say that because Republicans won’t work with Democrats to institute this commission to further investigate this January 6 thing. we might lose the filibuster. So, if you care about the filibuster, perhaps for all these reasons the donors care about the filibuster, get your campaign dollars, get on the phone with Republicans you have a connection to, and get them to support this commission, because otherwise the filibuster could be gone. And without the filibuster, a lot of other things could happen.
RG: And he doesn’t just stop there. Immediately afterwards, he starts naming names and telling them specifically who they should go after. So let’s just roll that clip right from there.
JM: OK. And here’s the thing, let me just tell you — OK, I’ll give you some names here. Roy Blunt is great, just a good friend of mine, a great guy. OK. You would like to think that Roy’s retiring, and some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him that it would be nice and help our country, that we’re going to be very good at getting him to change his vote, and we’re gonna have another vote on this thing.
RG: OK, that’s incredible. Let’s stop that right there, Lee.
I mean, wow. “Roy Blunt is great.” He’s “a good friend of mine.”
RG: OK you would like to think that Roy is retiring — basically, if some of you all might want to work with Roy in his next life could tell him that it’d be nice to help our country.
He is specifically telling them —
LF: It’s a revolving door! Saying, hey, we want to offer Roy Blunt a job when he joins your corporate board. [Laughs.]
RG: And let him know now that you will do that, which is not legal. Let’s be clear. That would break the law.
LF: And to be clear, this is the form of semi-legal — technically illegal, though it happens all the time — bribery, that’s very common in the United States. In many other countries, it’s a briefcase full of cash or whatever. In America, if you want to bribe a senator or congressman with hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars, you can’t give it to them directly. What you do is you promise them a consulting job, a board of directors position, something of that nature after they retire. So they then become indebted to you; they vote the way you expect them to, they behave politically as expected because they’re hoping for their payday the second they retire.
So what Manchin is saying is that Roy Blunt, the senator from Missouri, his good friend, is retiring. He’s going to be looking for that private sector gig as he’s covertly on the job market, and the people on the call, the corporate executives and Wall Street titans, are recruiting him; part of the recruitment is, “Hey, join this commission for the January 6 incident, but to save the filibuster.”
RG: Right. The incredible irony that you would be doing this to quote-unquote, save democracy.
LF: [Laughs.] That’s right, too.
RG: So let’s keep rolling that, because he’s got more names.
JM: They’ll give him one more shot at it, the Democrats will. If I ask Schumer and Pelosi and say, “I would like to have another vote before you roll this out completely on this bipartisan commission,” you got that, you’ve got basically Richard Burr, who voted for the impeachment, but then he didn’t vote for this for whatever reason. And I know he thought because we’re doing all these other commissions, how are we really, truly doing a bipartisan commission out of the political realm that we’re in right now.
And my good friend, Joe Lieberman, understands that. Joe’s looking at things differently today then he looked at when he was inside the Senate. He’s clear, I’m sure, that he can speak out more freely. Right, Joe?
Joe Lieberman: Well, what I see is you’re being a hero, Joe, and I appreciate it very much. And I can get the biggest kick when I read people comparing your role with the one I played occasionally. It’s not easy, it’s not always popular, but boy, you said — which is you’re putting the country ahead of party and person. And in the spirit of, and I quote, the great John McCain used to say, “There is no greater satisfaction than serving a cause larger than yourself.” And you’re doing it. So we’re here to help you. God bless you.
RG: Let’s stop it there. Lee, do you think that they are so far gone, that they recognize the clash between talking about serving a cause larger than themselves just a breath away from suggesting that these billionaires dangle a post senate gig in front of a senator so that he’ll change his vote to help preserve the filibuster? Do you think that even registers anymore?
LF: Well, look, I don’t want to — it’s hard to say. I feel like many of these folks, you could analyze this from the outside and see lots of hypocrisy. But if you talk to these type of donors or these type of politicians, many of them genuinely believe that their preservation of the status quo and moderate form of politics is patriotic and serving the country. So, you know, hard to say. [Laughs.] I think it’s easy to critique, but —
RG: And so, there were 56 votes for the commission. You know, he talks about how Pat Toomey wasn’t there that would but was supportive of it, so that would be 57, so he needs three. There’s another moment where names other people — other Republicans — that he thinks he can flip.
JM: I’ve got four people: I’ve got Steve Gaines in Montana; I think someone should be working on Jerry Moran in Kansas; Richard Burr in North Carolina; and Roy Blunt in Missouri.
We already have seven including Pat Toomey, they’ve already voted for it — six voted for it, Pat wasn’t there, but Pat already indicated he would have voted for it. So we’re [indistinct], but if we go back and show that we re-evaluated it and do this commission, the only thing I can tell you on that commission, they were having every reason why they weren’t going to support it.
First of all, it wasn’t balanced, that the count as far as the people on the committee was weighted for the Democrats; we got that changed where it’s five and five. The chairman and co-chairman have equal amounts of input. If they disagree, then it basically goes to where we don’t proceed if they don’t agree on the outcome or something that comes up in that commission. And next of all, if they go into loggerheads, you can’t get it … that’s what we have to do. If we can Roy can re-engage and we can get this passed, I can guarantee it calms down everyone that has beaten me to death on what makes you think that you live in la-la-land, out here in the fantasy world, not in the real world, what makes you think the Republicans will vote for anything, if they wouldn’t even do a bipartisan commission. That’s why it’s important for us to try to get it done, and important to get Roy to do it.
RG: Well, there you go. There he is saying it quite directly. That’s why it’s important to get Roy, so they can so they can show that they can actually get something done. Lee that sounds about in line with what he was saying earlier, right?
LF: Yeah, I mean, Manchin is a very intelligent, political animal. And he really understands that this is the best argument, perhaps, within the Democratic Caucus for getting rid of the filibuster if they can’t bring Republicans on board on this. So that’s why he’s really hammering this home.
RG: And what’s interesting is that when he later talks about the filibuster itself, he’s remarkably open to reforming it, which maybe is coherent, because it’s saying like: Look, these are really good arguments that the left has. Like, if you can’t sign on to this commission, it does make it much harder for me to defend the filibuster.
And so he addresses directly the role that Mitch McConnell played in blowing up the commission, in a much more direct way than he has talked about before.
JM: Mitch McConnell is, in a way, in on everything, right? He’s calling the shots on the Republican side.
And the only thing Mitch, whether you like it or not, the only thing Mitch cares about is the 2022 election. I asked him, I said, “Mitch, we had 12 or 15 people who are going to vote on that commission, the Jan. 6 commission, 12 or 14 committed Republicans. I went and talked to him, and he came out against it, and the numbers went down to six or seven. And I said, “Mitch, I need your help on this. I can’t continue to do this all by myself.” And he said, “Joe, that’s not good for our politics.” And I says [sic], “Mitch, not knowing what happened and preventing it from happening again, it’s not good for our country either. And I’m more concerned about our country.”
So if you want to know what’s in his heart, he has a hard stance, it’s all about the next election. I’m not saying that in a disparaging way, that’s just who he is. So that’s a black that we got to get over. We made some progress on some other things that’s really important that they can use against us. Because of the filibuster, he knows that I won’t break the filibuster, he feels that he has the ability to say “No,” that might help his — it’s unfair.
Let me just say this. It’s unfair for him to say that it’s all about the 2022 election promise, I think all arrows and spears on the filibuster. I’m committed to the filibuster, because it’s bigger than him, me, and the majority leader, and the minority leader, or how long any of us are going to be here. The filibuster allows our democracy to work, that no other country can do what we do. Because we do have to find common ground. And we’re just having a hard time.
When you talk to these people, ask the last time they had a cup of coffee with each other. Ask them the last time they had a meal with each other. Ask them last time they even talked to somebody about, “How’s your wife and your children doing?” There’s nothing going on. You understand? That’s the problem we’ve got. Nobody cares, and they won’t take the time and make the effort. That’s the problem.
So when they start preaching to me. And they know that I have dinner with everybody, I talk to everybody, I work with them every day, and they’re gonna chastise me because I’m trying to be too bipartisan? Well, I can tell you where I tell them to go. Because as soon as you make an effort, then I’ll sit down and talk to you. [Indistinct], don’t preach to me.
RG: So Billy, it’s interesting. He’s talking about fairness. And I think he’s not wrong in his analysis. McConnell, as much as Manchin says, knows that Manchin won’t blow up the filibuster, so he’s going to ride that into 2022. And Manchin is going to take all of the slings and arrows.
When you listen to that, there doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room or much hope for Democrats that he’s going to bend on the filibuster, does there?
LF: Well, it doesn’t sound like it. But then he goes on later to make some arguments that many progressives and Democrats have made about reforming the filibuster. So he sees it as an important institution, but an institution that he’s willing to change.
RG: Yeah. So let’s play that. So he’s asked by somebody from Jacksonville, Florida, about the proposal to lower the threshold for cloture to 55 votes — you could end a filibuster with 55 votes — and he starts talking pretty interesting about the filibuster here.
JM: That’s one of the many good suggestions I’ve had. I looked back in, I think it was 1973, when it went from 67 votes to 60 votes, and also what was happening, what made them think that it needed to change. So I’m open to looking at it, I’m just not open to getting rid of the filibuster, that’s all. And right now, 60 is where I’m planting my flag. But as long as they know that I’m going to protect this filibuster, we’re looking at good solutions.
RG: Let’s pause there to translate it a bit for people who get lost in the legislative lingo. When he says he planted his flag at 60, he has very publicly said, he’s not going to roll back 60 as the number of votes you need to get cloture, and cloture is the thing that ends a filibuster. And so if he doesn’t lift up that flag and move off of 60, then, really, you’re done.
But what he’s saying here is that he planted his flag there, but as long as people know that he’s protecting the filibuster, he’s willing to look at good solutions. So there’s the current version of the filibuster, then there’s the version that existed before the reforms of the 1970s. And as he’s saying here, he’s interested in other reforms that would keep the spirit of the filibuster alive. And then he gets into some of those right here. So roll that forward.
JM: I think basically it should be 41 people should have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in an affirmative. So find 41 in a negative. And then when they used to have a 67-vote threshold, they used to have about 10 percent of the center, as I understood it, go down with you and confirm that they supported your reasoning in the proposal.
Now, I think one level change that could be made — right now to be made — is basically anyone who wants to filibuster ought to be required to go to the floor. And basically state your objections and why you’re filibustering, and also state your appeal, what do you think needs to change to fix it, so you would support it. To me, that’s pretty constructive. I’m telling you why I’m against something.
RG: So yeah, so he’s saying that instead of having the onus be on the majority to go out and get 60 votes, which Democrats can’t do on anything, the minority would have to find 41 votes, which a determined minority could do, but they would have to basically occupy the 24/7. And so, at some point, a determined majority could overcome a determined minority, because just physically those 41 people just couldn’t stay there forever.
That’s what he hinted at last spring. And we did an episode on that back then. He got a ton of heat, and days later published something in The Washington Post saying he would never weaken or eliminate the filibuster to get the heat off of him.
Lee, what do you read into him floating the same thing that he floated three or four months ago?
LF: Well, I mean, it just simply shows that he’s still interested in this type of reform, which is not that radical and not, at least in my mind, not clear exactly how it would play out structurally. Would it radically change anything on any of the big issues? I don’t know.
But in general ensuring more transparency. This happened a little bit during the Obama years when they got rid of those secret holds when senators could basically place a bill or nominee in limbo without really disclosing their role in doing so. And that was absurd. So just simply having senators stand by their positions seemed to be a common-sense, popular reform, relatively speaking. And this kind of gets at that, again, geared towards transparency and making senators actually stand for what they believe in, if they’re going to jam up a system and obstruct any kind of vote with a minority of votes.
But at the end of the day, not to make too much of a non-sequitur here, but we have winner-take-all elections, which mathematically leads most cases to a two-party system. If you want a system, which is what Joe Manchin is describing, where various factions and parties have to coalition and talk to each other, alliances have to be made, people have to be professional and polite and work with the other side, if they want to pass legislation, well then you have to just change the entire system. It’s not just about one procedural rule in a legislative body.
You look at countries like Germany, or the countries in Scandinavia, or the Netherlands — or even Israel, in the last few weeks — systems that are not winner-take-all, that are proportional representation, mathematically, just procedurally, engender coalition-building. Germany has been ruled by a grand coalition of left and right, where everyone gets together, has coffee, talks to each other, those are the Manchin criteria, and they pass a lot of legislation and policy together.
In America, we have winner-take-all elections and that leads to this kind of gridlock. So I mean, these are common-sense reforms that he’s talking about, not radical reforms, nothing that would dramatically change things, but if you really want to get to a system where the various factions and parties in society get together, and you have truly competitive elections, where we have a multi-party system, we need much bigger picture reform.
And sorry to take this a little off track —
LF: But if Manchin truly believes that that’s what he should push, he shouldn’t be talking about 41 members sitting in on a chamber floor. He needs to be looking around the world. Political scientists have studied this problem very, very well. You know, Lee Drutman at the New America Foundation has a great book on this. But we need to be looking at other forms of elections and how we elect our legislative bodies, if we want to get to this fundamental problem.
RG: Well, the fundamental problem of that is that West Virginia would probably not come out with the power it has in that proportional system.
RG: We have a dis-proportional system.
LF: But you know, there are wider trends. I mean, maybe just like the Senate is gerrymandered, right, if we had a different way of electing the Senate body that’s not in these randomly drawn states, Appalachia as a region deserves representation. Maybe they need their own caucus, or even political party, and they might coalition with other regions of the country, if we had a system that was more like the proportional representation systems they have in the Netherlands and other countries.
RG: Well, I don’t think a constitutional convention is necessarily out of the question in our lifetimes at the rate we’re going, and I wonder if the donors will actually be even more motivated to work to get Blunt and some of the others after they heard how open Manchin actually is to other ideas around the filibuster.
LF: And we have to kind of bookmark this conversation and look at what happens to the senators he mentioned in this call. Do they join the commission? And then once some of them retire, Burr is set to retire, Blunt is set to retire, I believe —
LF: — will they be joining the private equity boards of the donors who were on this call. I think that’s something that we should check in the next few years.
RG: We will definitely be watching that. Toomey, too, going back to Wall Street. Well, Lee Fang, terrific reporting. Thanks so much for joining us.
LF: Hey, Ryan. Thanks for having me. Take care.
RG: That was Lee Fang, and that’s our show.
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