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Biden to join push for congressional action on voting rights

There's a growing chorus pushing Congress to address voting rights. President Biden is poised to join the chorus in dramatic fashion.

The U.S. Supreme Court's center-left minority wants Congress to tackle voting rights. The U.S. Justice Department has explicitly urged Congress to tackle voting rights. Democratic state legislators are pleading with federal lawmakers to protect voting rights.

And now President Joe Biden is stepping up in earnest, adding his voice to the campaign.

President Joe Biden will deliver remarks in Philadelphia on Tuesday about his administration's actions "to protect the sacred constitutional right to vote," a source familiar with the matter tells NBC News. The White House has been under pressure from progressive and civil rights activists to make stronger use of the presidential bully pulpit as Republicans at the state and local level have been pushing new restrictive voting laws in the name of fraud prevention.

In fairness to Biden, it'd be an overstatement to say the Democratic president has been ignoring the issue. It was just last month when he was in Tulsa, when he explained that the "sacred right [to vote] is under assault with an incredible intensity like I've never seen."

But it's also true that the White House and congressional Democratic leaders have also been principally focused on infrastructure negotiations, in large part because those efforts stand a better chance -- not a lock by any means, but a better chance -- of producing a successful package that might reach the Oval Office.

For voting-rights advocates, that may be understandable, but it's not enough. Given the severity of the crisis facing our democracy, the president and his allies have to do more.

It was against this backdrop that Biden met at the White House yesterday with representatives of several leading civil rights organizations, who received fresh assurances that Biden is prepared to invest time and energy into the issue. Less than a day later, the White House announced plans for the presidential address in Philadelphia.

The news comes on the heels of Vice President Kamala Harris's announcement of a new $25 million investment by the Democratic National Committee to support voting-rights protections, and the Justice Department's decision to file suit challenging Georgia Republicans' voter-suppression law.

But as important as these developments are, a fundamental question hangs overhead: will the Senate be able to legislate on the issue or not?

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was just two weeks ago when the Senate tried to move forward with a debate on a revised version of the For the People Act, but the Republican minority used a filibuster to derail the discussion. All 50 members of the Senate Democratic conference were united on this -- no small feat, to be sure -- but GOP senators wouldn't allow a debate, a vote, or a voting rights breakthrough.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told his members in writing this morning that as far as he's concerned, the fight is just getting started:

"Our fight to protect voting rights has also only just begun.... I want to be very clear: last month's vote represented the starting gun -- not the finish line -- in our fight to protect our democracy. Later this month, [Senate Rules Committee Chairman Amy] Klobuchar will hold a field hearing in Georgia to further examine the disgraceful tactics that Republican-led state legislatures are using across the country to keep people from voting. And as Majority Leader, I reserve the right to bring back voting rights and democracy reform legislation for another vote on the Senate floor."

The next couple of months will be critical, and though none of this will be easy, the door isn't completely closed. As the Associated Press recently reported, "Discussions are ongoing among congressional Democrats on how to proceed, with leaders noting privately that both [Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin] oppose eliminating the [Senate's filibuster] rule — but that doesn't mean they would oppose changing it. And President Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to consider a change."

The AP article added that Democratic leaders probably won't even try to eliminate the filibuster altogether, but they believe there's "an opportunity to improve the process" through some procedural changes.

I don't doubt some senators will be skeptical, but the fact remains that the future of American voting rights will hinge on a decision from 50 individual senators and a president who's poised to push those senators to do the right thing.