Two Joes will determine whether we protect the voting rights of all Americans. And one may have to persuade the other to get the job done.

These are no ordinary Joes. I am, of course, speaking of President Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

At stake is the For the People Act, which already passed the House. It would guarantee broad access to the ballot; a more transparent, democratic political money system; and an end to partisan gerrymanders.

Its chances of passing the Senate hang largely on Manchin’s willingness to acknowledge that there is no way that enough (or even any) Republicans will support comprehensive reform of our politics.

This was made clear when the Senate Rules Committee deadlocked last week on reporting the bill: nine Democratic Yeses and nine Republican Nos. As a result, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will have to bring the bill to the floor himself. He plans to because, as he told the Rules Committee, “we are witnessing an attempt at the greatest contraction of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.”

But the bill will almost immediately face a Republican filibuster. With only 50 Democrats in the Senate, this would kill political reform unless Manchin agrees to an exception to filibuster rules that require 60 votes to move forward.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on March 2 urged the House to pass H.R.1, For The People Act, to reform election, voting rights and ethics laws. (U.S. House of Representatives)

So far, Manchin’s signals are negative. Last week, he said that the bill, known as H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate, is “too darn broad, and we have no bipartisan support.”

Well, of course there is no Republican support for this. Republicans, as a party, are systematically rolling back voting rights in states they control. Anti-voting bills have already passed in 12 states, and more are in the works.

We can lament that voting rights have become a partisan issue, but that’s the way things are. No amount of cajoling, compromising, begging, pleading or standing-on-your-head-and-holding-your-breath will change this. Polls showing that many rank-and-file Republicans support the S. 1 reform don’t make a difference, either.

Which means that you can defend voting rights or you can defend the filibuster. You can’t do both. Manchin fears that passing a “partisan” bill on voting would further divide the country. Here’s what would divide the country even more: an election system that rolls back voting rights by endangering the ballot access of Black Americans, other minority groups and younger people.

Congress must also enact a new Voting Rights Act to restore the Justice Department’s ability to fight voting restrictions in the future. The original law was gutted in 2013 by a 5-to-4 right-wing Supreme Court majority. But a Voting Rights Act is no substitute for S. 1. Even if the Voting Rights Act is revived, all the voter suppression laws that have already been passed would stay on the books.

There is real urgency to getting the For the People bill done by August, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told me, both to block broad gerrymandering efforts and to give officials time to work through its requirements for early voting, drop boxes and other measures that did so much to enhance participation in 2020. “The secretaries of state and election clerks across the nation need to be able to have the balance of the year to adjust their procedures accordingly,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is chair of the Rules Committee and has made the S. 1 reforms a defining cause, got high marks for her handling of the bill from Senate Democrats at a closed caucus lunch on Thursday. The meeting was devoted largely to reviewing the massive infringements on voting rights happening across the nation and to plotting strategy for S. 1.

There was broad consensus for action, but one key senator wasn’t there: Manchin was back in West Virginia for a visit by first lady Jill Biden.

As for Jill Biden’s husband, he supports the For the People Act but hasn’t been at the center of this fight because he’s devoting most of his legislative energy to his infrastructure bill. The time has come for the president to speak out, often and forcefully, against the assault on voting rights inspired by former president Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

“We have to prove democracy still works,” President Biden said on April 28, calling on Congress to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (The Washington Post)

Contrary to Trump’s claims, it was a small-D democratic triumph. Amazingly during a viral pandemic, turnout rose in both Republican and Democratic states because voting was made more convenient. The only partisanship now involves the GOP’s determination to make it harder to vote.

Which also means that Biden must talk to Manchin, Senate traditionalist to Senate traditionalist, about why their past opposition to ending the filibuster has to give way in the face of the GOP’s assault on democracy.

With the voting rights of millions hanging by a thread, the two Joes will have to hang together to defend them.

Read more: