Democrats have made protecting and expanding voting rights a key legislative agenda item in the wake of the 2020 election, a response to the dozens of GOP-controlled states that sought to restrict voting rights and change election laws in the wake of President Biden’s victory over former president Donald Trump.

“Failure is not an option,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in May.

But even Biden publicly acknowledges getting a bill to his desk is a tall order.

“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ ” he said earlier this month. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of, effectively, four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”

The White House insisted that wasn’t a dig at two moderate senators — Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). But it was a moment of honest reflection, mixed in with a bit of frustration, at how Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate (and only slightly bigger majority in the House) is seriously limiting Biden’s legislative agenda.

There are two Democratic-driven voting-rights bills at different stages of the legislative process right now. The party’s top priority, the For the People Act, is by far the more ambitious of the two. You can read my longer breakdown of what’s in the bill passed by the House in March here — but the basic provisions include a national, automatic voter registration system built on data government agencies already have, nonpartisan redistricting commissions that attempt to eliminate gerrymandering, and changes in campaign finance laws that would require “dark money” groups and super PACs to publicly disclose their donors.

Democrats also threw in a proposed ethics code for public servants including Supreme Court justices (surprisingly, there is currently no ethics code for justices sitting on the highest court in the nation), and another measure seemingly targeted directly at Trump: A requirement that presidential candidates disclose their tax returns.

The other bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — which the House passed in 2019 before it died in the Senate, and hasn’t been introduced in the current Congress — is mostly focused on federal oversight of big changes to state or local voting laws; it would require the Justice Department to “preapprove” most changes to voting laws across the country.

Republicans have loudly opposed both bills, all but dooming their chances in the closely divided Senate. But Democrats have decided to hold a vote on at least one of them, the For the People Act, even if it seems unlikely to pass.

Manchin floats a compromise no one seems to like

Democrats have likely known for a while that the For the People Act would have trouble getting past the 60 votes in the Senate needed to avoid a filibuster. But while GOP opposition was expected, they didn’t even have all 50 Democrats in the Senate onboard; Manchin was the lone holdout, and the only Democrat not to sign on as a co-sponsor.

Without any GOP support, at least getting all 50 Senate Democrats behind the bill would have given the party the chance to say it was united — not just in supporting the For the People Act, or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but united against the nationwide GOP push for restrictive voting laws. It could ultimately be the Senate’s filibuster rule that derails the bill, even if Manchin decides to vote to end debate on it next week. And that would give Democrats who want to change or get rid of the filibuster more ammunition.

That seems like something Manchin is thinking about too in calling for a compromise.

“I think it’s too darn broad, and we got no bipartisan support,” Manchin said of the For the People Act in May. That’s not as much a policy argument as it is a practicality argument, and Manchin has spent the last few months insisting bipartisanship can still work in a bitterly divided Senate — a view some of his Democratic colleagues think is plain wrong.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said on June 6 he intends to oppose a sweeping voting rights bill that would expand access to voting across the United States. (Reuters)

Manchin seemingly created an opening for compromise earlier this week, releasing a three-page memo outlining which provisions of the For the People Act he’d support, but also adding in several provisions Democrats object to, but Republicans want, like increased voter ID requirements and wider latitude for local election officials to purge voter roles of inactive voters.

Schumer had little time for Manchin’s argument for bipartisanship this week.

“The idea that this can have some kind of bipartisan solution befuddles me,” he said, “because every action taken in the [state] legislatures is done just with Republican state senators, Republican assembly members, with no Democratic participation or input.”

But other Democrats quickly gravitated toward Manchin’s suggestions, including one of the most prominent voting rights advocates in Democratic politics, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Yet Abrams’ endorsement almost served as an excuse for some Republicans to quickly reject Manchin’s ideas.

“I actually think when Stacey Abrams immediately endorsed Sen. Manchin’s proposal it became the Stacey Abrams substitute, not the Joe Manchin substitute,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

And the Senate’s top Republican seems to agree

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised Thursday to filibuster the bill, denying Democrats the 60-vote threshold required to end debate and move to a final vote on most Senate legislation.

“I’ve taken a look at all the new state laws — none of them are designed to suppress the vote,” he said. “There is no rational basis for the federal government to take over all of American elections.”

That leaves Manchin’s vote as one of the few open questions. Democrats would presumably be happy to get a few GOP votes for the bill — but what they really want is a united front, a vote after which they can say Senate Democrats were unanimous in trying to, as they see it, protect voting rights across the country.

He’ll be under pressure to vote with his Democratic colleagues, though he has resisted that pressure in the past. He could vote to begin debate on the bill with Democrats, then vote against ending debate, which is when the GOP filibuster is almost certain to kill the bill’s chances of passing.

But what comes after that for Democrats? Republicans are full steam ahead on passing restrictive new bills in dozens of states, and in some cases, have already signed them into law. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act doesn’t seem to have much better prospects.

And that’s the reality of Democrats’ slim Senate majority: they just don’t have the votes to get much done on their own.