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On Voting Rights Act's anniversary, is a breakthrough possible?

On the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the odds are against a legislative breakthrough, but the door isn't closed just yet.


Exactly 56 years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed one of the most important pieces of federal legislation in American history into law. The Voting Rights Act, at long last, delivered on democracy's promise in the United States.

With this in mind, Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote a new op-ed for the Washington Post, urging lawmakers to restore voting rights protections in the wake of Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices gutting the historic legal breakthrough.

On this anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must say again that it is not right to erect barriers that make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. And it is time for Congress to act again to protect that fundamental right.

Garland didn't go into detail as to how Congress should act to protect fundamental voting rights, but the fact that the attorney general -- who has quite a bit of credibility among key senators -- is taking such a public stand is likely to generate some attention on Capitol Hill.

But will it make a difference?

As regular readers know, it was one month ago today when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) rejected his party's For the People Act, deeming it overly ambitious in its scope. Soon after, the conservative Democrat unveiled an alternative package on voting rights, which Republicans promptly killed, despite elements that were specifically designed to make them happy.

At that point, the conventional wisdom concluded that the push to protect voting rights at the federal level was, for all intents and purposes, dead.

But the effort still has a pulse -- which may be faint, but which exists nevertheless. In fact, just last week Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) hosted a private discussion -- at the urging of Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) -- to explore a legislative strategy in the hopes of advancing a revised voting rights package.

It wouldn't be as expansive and ambitious as the original For the People Act, but it would be narrowly focused in ways intended to generate broad support -- especially from Manchin, whose framework would serve as the basis for a bill.

The Washington Post added yesterday, "That effort has yet to produce a final product, but multiple Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the talks said they expect an agreement within days. That, they said, could set up a new vote in the Senate before the summer recess likely begins next week."

Now, I know what you're thinking. At this point, you're looking at your screen and wondering, "What difference does it make? Senate Republicans will never even consider such a proposal; there's no realistic chance that any voting-rights bill can overcome a GOP filibuster; so there's no point in taking any of this seriously."

That may be very well prove to be true, but let's not lose sight of the fact that these senators are rolling up their sleeves and working arduously to craft a meaningful bill. Whether or not you always agree with the relevant players -- Schumer, Warnock, Manchin, Amy Klobuchar have all taken leading roles in this process -- none of these senators are dumb.

They're well aware of the legislative arithmetic, and it seems unlikely that they'd invest time and energy into an important bill that was doomed from the outset.

It's against this backdrop that the senators have dug in anyway. Watch this space.