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Why voting rights legislation faces an uphill climb in the Democratic Congress

The filibuster has become an immovable object for advocates who insist that new protections are needed to save democracy.

WASHINGTON — The fight over voting rights legislation has become a proxy war over the Senate filibuster — which is why, even though Democrats control Congress, it remains unlikely to become law.

The issue is coming under the microscope again on Tuesday, as President Joe Biden gives a speech in Philadelphia assailing the GOP restrictions as "un-American" and calling for new federal protections. Texas Democratic legislators fled the state in an attempt to scuttle new Republican-led voting limits and traveled to Washington to plead with Democrats to pass voting protections.

But on Capitol Hill, the prospects remain slim.

In the House, Democrats have passed the "For the People Act," a sweeping wish list of liberal priorities that makes Election Day a national holiday and requires all states to permit 15 days of early voting, universal access to vote-by-mail and other provisions.

But that bill has hit a wall in the Senate, where Democrats have a razor-thin 50-50 majority that hinges on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Election legislation is subject to the 60-vote rule, meaning it'd require at least 10 Republicans to vote to defeat a filibuster. That isn't in the cards. GOP senators have overwhelmingly said they don't want new federal rules, saying that states should get to decide how to run their elections.

Last month, all 50 Democrats voted to begin debate on the bill but all 50 Republicans united to block it.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's support has been key to getting 10 GOP votes. And he has made it a top priority to kill the "For the People Act."

That leaves Democrats with two options: Give up, or nuke the filibuster to pass it.

Scrapping the filibuster would require a majority of the Senate — that is, all 50 Democrats — and set a likely irreversible precedent. While a number of them have equivocated, two have been outspoken proponents of preserving the filibuster: Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Neither has given any indication that they would support nuking the filibuster to pass new voting legislation.

Sinema is a co-sponsor of the "For the People Act." But she has been emphatic about preserving the super-majority rule, arguing that it promotes stability in lawmaking and warning that if it's removed, a future Republican-led Washington could repeal the Democratic law and slap new limits like voter ID.

People familiar with Sinema's thinking say she believes the path for Democrats to achieve lasting change is not to break the system or restructure it, but rather to work within the system and win more elections to secure the power to pass the laws they want.

Manchin opposes the "For the People Act" as written but has expressed openness to numerous provisions, paving the way for Democrats to get 50 votes for some major voting legislation.

He plans to meet with the Texas Democrats in town to discuss the matter, his office said Tuesday.

The West Virginia Democrat was asked by NBC News on Tuesday whether he supports a voting rights carve-out to the 60-vote rule, as the legislators have called for. He did not say.

"I'm anxious to meet with them," Manchin responded. "I'm anxious to talk to everybody."

Manchin is the only sitting senator who voted against weakening the filibuster to confirm presidential nominees under Democratic rule in 2013 and under Republican rule in 2017. He hails from ruby-red West Virginia and has insisted that it promotes bipartisan cooperation.

Manchin has expressed openness to making it more "painful" to block legislation, such as requiring senators to appear in person and hold the Senate floor for the duration of the filibuster. But even if that rule were to be established, it is unlikely to enable passage of the Democrats' voting bill as Republicans have been unabashedly against it and could take turns executing a live filibuster.

Biden's speech Tuesday comes after progressive activists have pushed him to use his bully pulpit and cajole Democrats to do what it takes to pass voting laws. Biden has not called for abolishing the filibuster and the White House has said that is up to the Senate to decide. The president has called for a "talking filibuster," which may not be enough to push through federal voting standards.

Democrats are separately planning to take up the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act this fall, which would require states with a recent history of discrimination to get pre-approval for changes to voting laws, an attempt to restore and update a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013.

That, too, is poised to run headlong into the 60-vote threshold. Just one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has voiced support for that proposal.