Via Amy Siskind, The Intercept has obtained leaked audio of a call with billionaire donors.

The meeting was hosted by the group No Labels, a big money operation co-founded by former Sen. Joe Lieberman that funnels high-net-worth donor money to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. Among the gathering’s newsworthy revelations: Manchin described an openness to filibuster reform at odds with his most recent position that will buoy some Democrats’ hopes for enacting their agenda.

The call included several billionaire investors and corporate executives, among them Louis Bacon, chief executive of Moore Capital Management; Kenneth D. Tuchman, founder of global outsourcing company TeleTech; and Howard Marks, the head of Oaktree Capital, one of the largest private equity firms in the country. The Zoom participant log included a dial-in from Tudor Investment Corporation, the hedge fund founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. Also present was a roster of heavy-hitting political influencers, including Republican consultant Ron Christie and Lieberman, who serves as a representative of No Labels and now advises corporate interests.

The meeting was led by Nancy Jacobson, the co-founder of No Labels.

No Labels bills itself as an American political organization whose stated mission is to combat partisan dysfunction in politics and build a bi-partisan governing coalition. It sounds reasonable until you ask which citizens that coalition serves. (Hint: corporations are citizens too, my friend.)

Manchin is calling on the No Labels dark money players to persuade enough Republicans to play nice so he can A) preserve his bipartisan fetish and B) block the progressive agenda. The audio is 58 minutes long. Not all of it is the audio from the meeting; The Intercept provides context with an intro by Lee Fang and Ryan Grim who analyze significant points made during the call. 

The meeting audio starts at about 5 minutes 30 seconds, with Nancy Jacobson talking about the power of the money they have to get politicians to do what they want. What they want is to preserve the tax code that serves them and block progressive threats to their comfortable existence.

THE ZOOM CALL also featured a lengthy discussion about campaign money. “As far as the members of Congress, I mean, we did over 500,000 for [Rep.] Brian Fitzpatrick, which took us two weeks to put that together,” Jacobson said on the call, adding that the group planned to raised and direct some $20 million in “hard” dollars this cycle, referring to money that goes directly to a member of Congress’s political action committee; that means the member of Congress has control over it, rather than having to rely on an outside super PAC.

While Manchin is rock-hard in his defense of the filibuster, in this conversation he’s a little more… flexible.

Manchin acknowledged that publicly he had drawn a line at 60, but said that he was open to other ideas. “Right now, 60 is where I planted my flag, but as long as they know that I’m going to protect this filibuster, we’re looking at good solutions,” he said. “I think, basically, it should be [that] 41 people have to force the issue versus the 60 that we need in the affirmative. So find 41 in the negative. … I think one little change that could be made right now is basically anyone who wants to filibuster ought to be required to go to the floor and basically state your objection and why you’re filibustering and also state what you think needs to change that’d fix it, so you would support it. To me, that’s pretty constructive.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this call. On climate, Manchin thinks the government shouldn’t be building charging stations for electric vehicles; let the private sector do it with tax incentives. He says the problem is emissions from China and the coal plants they are building around the world — but he really likes the idea of carbon sequestration, which would keep West Virginia coal going. (As yet, there is no viable sequestration technology.)

Voting reform, infrastructure, the filibuster… One of the key observations Fang and Grim make is that these are important policy issues — but the conversation is not taking place in public. This is a private call where the seats at the table are taken by billionaires and Manchin is negotiating with them. These are the people Manchin is talking to — and listening to; not his voters, not the public. This is what oligarchy looks like. 

What Manchin says in public is different from what he’s saying here.  They point out he’s making his case instead to these megadonors and spelling out what he is going to do, what he wants and needs. He really is upset about the “far left”. He wants them to get enough Republicans on board for a January 6 commission to take away a major talking point from the left that threatens the filibuster. (This is around 35 minutes into the audio.)

He’s essentially telling No Labels to get Republicans (he names names) on board with a commission to take away the talking point that Republicans never cross the aisle —  if they want to save the filibuster — and he’s telling them to use the power of their money to persuade them they will be rewarded in the future after they leave Congress. Technically legal — but pretty close to the edge.

Fang and Grim make the observation that the people behind No Labels (and Manchin) think there’s nothing wrong with the status quo and what they are doing is truly patriotic. Manchin has problems with what McConnell is doing — but he believes the filibuster is essential to making democracy work. He is frustrated that he talks to everybody, but nobody is willing to work together, and he ends up taking the heat. (Right — both sides are to blame, eh?) He is willing to entertain some filibuster reforms — but refuses to talk about it in public.

One of the things that isn’t in this audio or in Fang and Grim’s observations is the fact that Manchin seems to have no interest in what his Democratic colleagues are thinking and saying — other than being angry about taking heat from them. He’s more concerned about working with McConnell than he is with Schumer. That’s telling all by itself.

What this audio reveals about Manchin — and dark money — should be making headlines. Manchin is living in another world. This makes it pretty clear.

UPDATE: Tierney Sneed at Talking Points Memo  has a report on what Manchin wants in the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — and what he doesn’t.

Manchin is seeking to strip several major ballot access provisions from the For the People Act, the bill currently before the Senate, which is also known as S.1. He also wants to scale back the reach of the Voting Right Act’s preclearance regime, weakening what’s in previous versions of the VRA restoration legislation, known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

…Manchin also opposes S.1’s requirement that states offer no-excuse absentee voting. He also wants changes to its voter ID language. Currently, S.1 would require that states allow non-ID holders an affidavit option to confirm their identity; Manchin’s proposal vaguely alludes to letting voters show utility bills or other forms of identification that some photo ID states do not now allow.

…[He] favors S.1’s mandates for early in person voting, automatic voter registration, and notifications to voters when their precinct locations change. He also wants to ban partisan gerrymandering and has proposed, in his compromise offer, making Election Day a federal holiday (a proposal that has mixed support in the voting rights community because of unintended consequences that could make voting harder for some.)

…Manchin is also proposing certain changes to other aspects of the bill that deal with campaign finance and government ethics, though he is also backing major elements of those provisions.

While Manchin is making his support contingent on changes to the legislation — late in the process — it will still need 10 GOP votes to overcome a filibuster.

Manchin has nonetheless been looking to bring Republicans on board, including with a Monday Zoom, reported by Politico Thursday, with civil rights advocates and a few GOP senators. On Monday, Manchin also made private comments to the group No Labels, reported Thursday by the Intercept, suggesting some openness to tweaking the filibuster rules — either by putting the burden on the minority to stall a bill (currently it’s the majority that must put up the votes required to advance it) or lowering the threshold.

You can hear Manchin’s thoughts on voting legislation and the filibuster in the Zoom call with No Labels.

UPDATE: Digby covers the Zoom call with No Labels as well: The Emperor Speaks With His Nobles

So, it appears that America now has two leaders. One is overseas handling foreign policy. The other is in Washington speaking with high level campaign donors about what he plans to do about the peasants…

Click over to the main article to see all the discussion about campaign money in S.1, which is what all this is really about for these people. Some participants actually seemed to admit to breaking campaign finance laws on behalf of centrists in the last election which nobody will ever do anything about so … whatever.

They also bragged about coordinating with the Chamber of Commerce to leverage votes for big money interests. …

Maybe Manchin will prevail in getting his buddies on the other side handsomely paid off and we can get a January 6th commission and some puny infrastructure or voting bills. This would be better than nothing. But I doubt very much that Manchin will get what he wants. McConnell has way more juice when it comes to payoffs and he also has a very big orange stick names Donald Trump ready to make any Republican a toxic figure if they vote with the Democrats. I’m betting on the Grim Reaper — but hoping to be wrong.

And at Lawyers, Guns & Money, the take on this is that Manchin is the designated front man for Democratic Senators who don’t want to take the heat.

My guess is that there are a handful of Democratic senators who join Manchin and Sinema in being outright opponents of democratic voting rules. And there’s also probably multiple members of what we might call the Dianne Feinstein caucus, who probably wouldn’t vote to maintain the filibuster if there were 49 votes against it, but are fundamentally and explicitly complacent and aren’t trying to move the caucus in the right direction despite being in completely safe seats:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) broke with colleagues who have said they would “choose democracy” and scrap the filibuster if Republicans tried to block H.R. 1, Democrats’ sweeping election reform bill, telling Forbes, “If democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it,” but “I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now.”

Have I mentioned that elderly indispensable-in-their-own-minds elite Democrats refusing to quit, even when they’re sub-replacement-level hacks, is a major problem?

What’s maddening about this, as Roberts says, is that’s pure cowardice. Every Senate Democrat would still have a veto without the filibuster right now, and under the current partisan coalitions anything resembling an actual liberal majority is essentially impossible. They just don’t want to face the pressure that Manchin is getting knowing that they don’t even have the excuse of representing a deep red state, and they’re willing to take American democracy down with them if necessary.

What we need: More Democrats, but also better Democrats, for damn sure. Unless Biden can channel LBJ as well as FDR, Senate Democrats are going to neuter his agenda out of sheer funk and fear of progressives. We have to keep the pressure on.

UPDATE 6-17-21: As if we needed any more proof that Manchin is living in a fantasy world when it comes to getting Republican votes for anything, Kate Riga at Talking Points Memo reports McConnell has dismissed the Manchin Voting Compromise as “Equally Unacceptable”.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made short work of any notion that Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) voting compromise would attract Republican support, calling it “equally unacceptable” to the original For the People Act and “totally inappropriate.”

Flanked by eight GOP senators, McConnell held a special additional press conference on S.1, Thursday, seemingly feeling the need to hammer his criticisms in the wake of Manchin nudging a door open to intra-Democratic compromise on the bill.

“All Republicans, I think, will oppose that as well if that were to be surfaced on the floor,” he said of Manchin’s proposed alterations to S.1. “That’s not what we anticipate the cloture motion to be on.”

Even if his reforms were to be added into S.1 immediately, before next week’s vote, the bill almost certainly wouldn’t pass. With the filibuster in place and no Republican support, Democrats alone can’t vote it into law. Anti-filibuster advocates hope that the pressure to pass the bill, which Democrats have marketed as crucial to beat back the existential threat to democracy, will convince Manchin and fellow filibuster supporter Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to change or eliminate the Senate rule.

Neither has indicated that they plan to do so, though Manchin’s memo at least heightens the chances that, if his concerns are addressed, there will be 50 votes for the bill and a stronger case against the filibuster.

So let’s see. Manchin may be able to convince himself to vote for the compromised bill IF they adopt his demands so Democrats can get 50 votes, and if 10 Republicans don’t magically appear to vote for it as well, well that just shows he tried. As long as No Labels is happy, the filibuster is saved, and the progressives are blocked, he can live with that outcome.

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Meh.
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We’re screwed.
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