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On voting rights and Republicans, Manchin has an arithmetic problem

If there are 10 Republican senators who might realistically support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, can Joe Manchin name them? If not...

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has already announced plans to kill his party's top legislative priority, the democracy-reform package called the For the People Act, but the conservative Democrat also said he has a fallback plan. The West Virginian added that he continues to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would more narrowly help protect the franchise.

Manchin will not, however, help return the Senate to its majority-rule roots, and since a Republican filibuster of the Voting Rights Advancement Act is inevitable, it means proponents will have to find 10 Republican senators to support it.

Right now, there's only one -- and she suggested to NBC News yesterday that finding nine more GOP votes may not be realistic.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the only Republican who has endorsed the proposal, expressed uncertainty Monday when she was asked to describe the path to 60 votes in the evenly split chamber. "I don't know. I don't know. It's a challenging one. I think we just have to be honest with it," Murkowski said. "You've got to find an awful lot of Republicans to join us on this."

At this point in President Obama's first term, there was a sizable Democratic majority, but not yet a 60-vote supermajority. As a result, an almost comical amount of time was invested in trying to find a handful of GOP senators who might be willing to support assorted proposals.

It was not uncommon to hear Democrats joke in the spring and summer of 2009 that Barack Obama talked to literally no one more than then-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a relative moderate who retired in 2012, whose vote the White House routinely needed for all kinds of priorities.

At the time, the Democratic majority faced a frustrating challenge: practically everything required 60 votes, which meant begging a handful of Republican centrists on a nearly daily basis. The problem is vastly worse now: the Democratic majority is working alongside the most far-right GOP Senate conference in generations, and it needs 10 Republican senators to advance legislation.

And as Lisa Murkowski put it, 10 is "an awful lot."

The only relevant player on Capitol Hill who doesn't seem to realize this is Joe Manchin, who genuinely seems to believe that there are so many reasonable Senate Republicans, eager to work constructively and in good faith with the Democratic majority, that he's willing to derail Democratic governance -- and democratic governance -- at least for a while, in order to pursue illusory GOP votes.

Pressed on this over the weekend, the West Virginian told CBS News, "Let me say this: There's been seven brave Republicans that have spoken out. They have voted, whether it be impeachment or the wrongdoings of the president, whether it be for a commission."

There's certainly some truth to that. During February's impeachment trial of Donald Trump, seven Senate Republicans ended up voting to convict the former president. Last month, meanwhile, seven GOP senators also voted to create an independent commission to examine the Jan. 6 insurrectionist attack on the Capitol. (Technically, six Republicans sided with Democrats on a procedural vote, but a seventh publicly backed the proposal, though he wasn't on the floor at the time.)

From Manchin's perspective, these totals are an inspiration and proof of widespread moderation among his GOP colleagues. I wish that were true. It's not.

For one thing, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has been pending for months, and during that time, a grand total of one Senate Republican has endorsed it. The idea that there are seven GOP senators ready to sign on as proponents of the legislation is belied by a simple headcount.

For another, and this is important, seven isn't 10. Even if Manchin were to somehow secure the support of seven Senate Republicans -- by any fair measure, an unrealistic target -- the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act still wouldn't have the support needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Or put another way, Manchin doesn't just have a political problem, he also has an arithmetic problem.

To be sure, the Senate could protect voting rights through an up-or-down vote in the chamber, but that would require Democrats to alter the institution's rules and help restore the Senate's majority-rule traditions. Manchin has ruled out that possibility.

Given these circumstances, Congress' most conservative Democrat has a responsibility to be specific. If there are 10 Republican senators who might realistically support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, can Manchin name them? If not, can he explain his backup plan to protect Americans' access to their own democracy as Republicans relentlessly attack the franchise in red states nationwide?