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As voting-rights advocates 'panic,' can the For the People Act pass?

Voting-rights advocates have four weeks to convince senators that (a) the crisis facing our democracy is real; and (b) our democracy is worth preserving.
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The Capitol dome is seen from the Russell Senate Office Building on Dec. 20, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

Over the holiday weekend, Texas Democrats felt some temporary relief when they managed to derail an odious Republican voter-suppression bill. It wasn't long, however, before their attention turned to a different legislative body, 1,300 miles away.

"Now we need Congress to do their part," state Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Texas) said. "Breaking quorum is about the equivalent of crawling on our knees begging the president and the United States Congress to give us the For the People Act and give us the John Lewis Voting Rights Act," Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-Texas) added.

President Joe Biden appears to agree. While delivering remarks in Oklahoma yesterday, honoring the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Biden called for June to be "a month of action on Capitol Hill," specifically on the issue of voting rights. He even announced a new White House point person who'll take the lead on the issue:

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the administration's push to protect voting rights as federal election reform legislation faces steep hurdles in the closely divided Senate.... "With her leadership and your support, we're going to overcome again," he said, speaking to community leaders and survivors on the 100th anniversary of the bloody attack on Tulsa's Black residents.

To be sure, Harris is not to be underestimated, but the task ahead is daunting. Republican officials in states across the country are cracking down on democracy in ways without modern precedent, and Democratic proposals to address the crisis don't yet have the votes to pass.

For one thing, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has refused to get behind the For the People Act, in large part because he says GOP opponents of voting rights don't like the bill -- and he appears to value bipartisan policymaking above meaningful governing. For another, even if Manchin were to change his mind -- the conservative Democrat did endorse a very similar proposal in the last Congress -- it wouldn't much matter unless Senate Dems also agreed to alter the chamber's filibuster rules to allow the legislation to receive an up-or-down vote.

Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have repeatedly said that is not an option they're prepared to consider, no matter how severe the threats to the U.S. democracy become. A Washington Post report added today:

Democrats increasingly see an existential threat from Republican-led state governments determined to place new limits on voting, which critics say would disproportionately affect voters of color, a core part of the Democratic coalition. One Democratic congressional aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said "panic" is the right word to describe the mood in the party.

That is, "panic" is the right word to describe the mood in most of the party.

All of this is likely to come to a head fairly soon. While lawmakers are away from Capitol Hill this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told members late last week in a letter, "In the last week of the June work period, the Senate will vote on S. 1, the For the People Act, legislation that is essential to defending our democracy, reducing the influence of dark money and powerful special interests, and stopping the wave of Republican voter suppression happening in the states across the country in service of President Trump's Big Lie."

If Schumer sticks to this timeline, it means Harris, Biden, Democratic leaders, democracy scholars, and other voting-rights advocates have roughly four weeks to convince a handful of stubborn senators that (a) the crisis facing American democracy is real; and (b) our democracy is worth preserving.

I honestly haven't the foggiest idea what the party's strategy for success might entail, and I'm finding it difficult to imagine how proponents of voting rights win this fight.