Activists and faith leaders say they are readying a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience against Sen. Joe Manchin for his opposition to voting rights and expansive spending bills backed by Democrats.
Leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival are calling on Manchin to ditch the filibuster so Democrats can pass voting rights legislation and drop his opposition to a $15 minimum wage and $3.5 trillion in new social and climate investment.
All eyes have been on the conservative Democrat as of late, whose vote is key for reaching the 50-vote threshold his party needs to pass legislation as congressional deadlines loom. This has made Manchin, who prides himself as a bipartisan dealmaker, one of the most powerful members of Congress — and a target for protesters in his home state of West Virginia and beyond.
“This is not a game, and it’s time for [Manchin] to stop playing games and decide which side he is on,” said Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, during a press conference with activists from West Virginia on Monday.
Thanks in part to Manchin and other conservative Democrats, the party has failed to use its slim majority in Congress to thwart Republican voter suppression efforts at the state level, which social justice advocates criticize for feeding anti-democratic conspiracy theories and disenfranchising voters of color. While Manchin supports the latest voting rights bill from Senate Democrats, he has refused to support a workaround for the current filibuster rules, leaving Democrats in need of 10 Republican votes that are likely nonexistent.
The Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package — which contains new investments in clean energy and “human infrastructure,” such as education, child care and health care — may also be in peril. While Democrats can avoid a filibuster through reconciliation, they need a vote from Manchin, who has said that he would only support a $1.5 trillion deal. In private discussions, Manchin has reportedly suggested that Democrats should wait until next year to vote on a package that is central to President Biden’s agenda.
Barber said much more than $3.5 trillion in social spending over the next decade is needed (the United States spent about $8 trillion on the “war on terror” over the past two decades). The social justice and faith leader reminded reporters that lawmakers are doing much more than simply debating budget numbers. The budget reconciliation package contains proposals to lower the cost of higher education, invest in public schools and health care, provide paid leave for workers and extend an expanded child tax credit, for example.
For the estimated 140 million people in the U.S. who are poor or lower-income, Barber said, these investments are crucial, especially while the federal minimum wage remains frozen at $7.25. However, Manchin has echoed Republicans by balking at the price tag and suggesting that the child tax credit be tied to work requirements, which would punish low-income parents who can’t find work. Studies show work requirements are much better at taking benefits away from economically vulnerable people than increasing employment.
“[Manchin] is playing political games and maneuvering, but this is no damn game for poor and low-wealth people in this country and his state,” Barber said.
This week, the Poor People’s Campaign took out full-page ads in West Virginia’s major newspapers. The ads call on Manchin to stand with lower-income residents in one of the nation’s poorest states. Activists in West Virginia are still angry that Manchin proposed only an $11 minimum wage hike and blocked Democrats from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour with a COVID relief bill earlier this year. In West Virginia, a minimum wage earner must work 68 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
In June, hundreds of protesters marched on Manchin’s office in Charleston, West Virginia, demanding he reverse his opposition to the For the People Act, a voting rights and elections overhaul bill passed by House Democrats earlier this year. The For the People Act is dead in the Senate, but Manchin threw his support behind the bill’s successor, the Freedom to Vote Act, after facing pressure from protesters and forcing negotiations with fellow Democrats.
Mass rallies for voting rights in late August singled out Manchin, whose refusal to budge on the filibuster has also prevented legislation for revitalizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 from passing. Manchin also supports that legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but it appears impossible to pass without changes to filibuster rules that Manchin has so far opposed.
Rev. Liz Theoharis, a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, compared Manchin’s support for the Freedom to Vote Act to a “photo op.”
“This is a cynical exercise of image polishing as Manchin stands in the way of For the People Act, fully restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act, ending the filibuster, and raising minimum wage to $15/hour, all of which are widely supported by the people of West Virginia and the nation,” Theoharis said.
Voting rights experts say the Freedom to Vote Act contains some important improvements over the For the People Act, but Barber and other organizers oppose compromise language supported by Manchin on voter ID laws. Instead of striking down voter ID requirements, which critics say can disenfranchise marginalized voters, the Freedom to Vote Act would expand the types of identification voters can present.
“The language that seems to deem voter ID as essential to election integrity and election confidence … that language is codifying the Trump lie” about election fraud, Barber said.
The Poor People’s campaign is currently urging activists to flood Manchin’s office with phone calls demanding the senator change his positions on the filibuster and support Democratic priorities. If Manchin refuses, Barber said activists may organize sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience but did not give the senator any firm deadlines.
“Our backs are against the wall, and we have no choice but to fight. And we will fight nonviolently, but we will fight,” Barber said.
Still, the reverend remarked that it’s not too late for Manchin to change his mind.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Liz Theoharis as a Poor People’s Campaign organizer in Virginia. Theoharis is a national co-chair of the group. The earlier version also suggested the group is engaged in “civil rights” advocacy, but the campaign says “social justice” activism is more accurate.