Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 9, 2016

Voting Rights Act Puts GOP in Pickle

House Republicans face a political dilemma as they consider how — and whether — to rewrite the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court neutered some of its most powerful provisions last week.

Failing to act would undermine the party’s efforts to reach out to minority voters and potentially prompt a backlash that drives up Democratic turnout. But passing any law that reinstates federal preclearance of voting laws in some states would face a bruising battle in Congress.

Lawmakers in any affected states would be almost certain to protest a rewrite, while Democrats have an incentive to insist on the broadest possible bill.

Even with the difficult politics, Republicans seem willing to try.

A Republican aide familiar with negotiations said that “discussions among top Republicans and Democrats are already under way, with every intention of introducing a legislative solution,” but leadership has yet to commit to bringing a measure to the floor.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is leading the Republican charge to rewrite his own rewrite.

In 2006, it was Sensenbrenner, then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who worked to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act a year early, before it expired in 2007, fearing that a different Congress would not be able to pass a reauthorization.

After the court’s ruling last week, Sensenbrenner said the Voting Rights Act was “vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process” and pledged that he and his colleagues “will work in a bipartisan fashion” to update the law.

Sensenbrenner did warn, however, that it will “take time and will require members from both sides of the aisle to put partisan politics aside and ensure Americans’ most sacred right is protected.”

An aide to Sensenbrenner said any solution must be “completely bipartisan” and “comply with the objections of the Supreme Court.”

When asked by in March whether Republicans would have the political will to update the law if the court struck it down, Sensenbrenner was blunt. “I’m gonna make them fix it,” he said at the time.

However, John Feehery, a former aide to then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, questioned whether the parties can get anything done.

“I’m not sure that’s doable given the partisanship in the House right now,” Feehery told CQ Roll Call on Monday. He said such a deal would probably require an agreement between the Congressional Black Caucus and House conservatives — a tall order.

Still, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., already have a dialogue. Cantor recently visited Selma, Ala., with Lewis — a visit Cantor cited in his push last week for congressional action in the wake of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

“My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all,” he said. “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

But putting partisan politics aside — especially when dealing with voting laws — is easier issued in a press release than written into law.

Speaker John A. Boehner, who avoided issuing a release after the ruling, so far has been noncommittal. “We’re reviewing the decision and trying to make some determination about a pathway forward,” the Ohio Republican said. “But we haven’t made any decisions as of yet.”

Perhaps no incident epitomizes the acidic politics surrounding the Voting Rights Act like last year’s exchange between Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., and Lewis.

Broun offered an amendment cutting all funding for the enforcement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Lewis came to the floor and said it was “hard and difficult and almost unbelievable” that Broun would do so.

“People died for the right to vote — friends of mine, colleagues of mine,” Lewis thundered.

Broun apologized and withdrew the amendment.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., who will be a key figure in any House rewrite, said last week that his committee will hold a hearing in July to examine the implications of the Supreme Court ruling. He emphasized the parts of the law that remain on the books in a statement after the decision.

“This decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which remains in place,” he noted.

But the ruling is already having real-world implications.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Texas implemented a voter photo ID law that was previously blocked by a federal court and Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the state’s redistricting plan, which had been struck down repeatedly by the courts.

On the Democratic side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that her caucus “and some Republicans” immediately started talking about “what we can do in response to the court’s action.”

Pelosi also said she asked Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina to spearhead the effort on the Democratic side.

According to a senior Democratic leadership aide, Democrats have not yet crystallized behind a unified strategy, but they plan to hold a meeting when members return from the July Fourth recess.

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

  • monacall

    what’s so hard about this …………….get a picture ID so you can vote……there I did their job for them…..

    • qariwa55

      What’s so hard? If a voter ID requirement is done right, nothing would be. But states such as Florida rigged the rules in such a way that it would have been an expensive and incovenient chore for some people actually to get the very special picture ID required. Fortunately the law was struck down.

      • monacall

        how??? did they make it hard

        • qariwa55

          Pennsylvania is actually a better example, because there were other issues in Florida:

          In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, the rigging consisted in requiring a special ID for voting and giving very little time to get it. As elsewhere, Pennsylvania required that people get the ID in person at state offices few and far between, meaning it would have been expensive for those without a car to get to the closest office.

          If a state makes it easy and cheap enough to get the required ID, and allow plenty of time, I have no objection to it requiring IDs, but when it is difficult and/or expensive to get a card, that is like a poll tax, which is unconstitutional.

          • monacall

            how do they get a check cashed? how do they enter a building that requires an id……..they don’t fly either? is what your saying? if they get welfare assistance how do show who they are? or can they just say I need welfare money and a bamahone? how do they live in this society without a photo id………..please explain

          • qariwa55

            You miss the point. Some of these voter ID laws would require an ID SPECIFICALLY for voting, and IDs for the purposes you mention would not be allowed for voting. That is, IDs such as a driver’s license, a majority card (for nondrivers) from the Motor Vehicle Dept., and a student ID would be unacceptable. Don’t forget that there are many elderly and disabled around who cannot suddenly get up and travel 40 miles to pick up a new ID.

            If states required an ID, and allowed people to use a range of picture IDs, I do not think many people would object, as long as it was convenient enough to obtain them (jamming through a bill a month before elections will not do). Certainly not me.

            Many voter suppression laws are deliberately tricky. They sound fine but are not. They are James Q. Crow, Esq. laws rather than Jim Crow ones. Don’t be fooled!

          • JohnSkookum

            I think you are lying. What state requires an ID to vote, but does not accept a state-issued driver’s license or non-driver ID Card? When was such a law even proposed?

  • GoldBeachBiker

    With this poorly written and blatantly biased hit-job piece from the so called “moderate”
    Roll Call, I am cancelling my newsfeed from this liberal rag. What an
    outragiously biased piece of yellow journalism! Quoting Salon too!
    Roll Call, you should be ashamed!

  • PortageMain

    If this is the worst “pickle” Republicans find themselves in this cycle, I think they will be just fine. Notwithstanding that Sensenbrenner has got himself worked up over it, there is little enthusiasm for going beyond the Section 2 provisions creating a permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting. Going beyond that strays into affirmative action territory, and Democrats are going to need some big carrots to lure Republicans into supporting it, despite the author’s baseless suggestion that “Failing to act would undermine the party’s efforts to reach out to minority voters and potentially prompt a backlash that drives up Democratic turnout.”

  • Tab L. Uno, LCSW, MPA

    With the demographic changes occurring, reverse discrimination will become more and more likely as the newly empowered minorities begin slowly to take over the reigns of political and business leadership positions over the next generation or two. It is in the Republican Party as well as the current white majority interest to preserve an impartial, non-discriminatory law protecting the civil rights of all people as the pendulum slowly swings against the white majority. Preserving the minority surge while eliminating civil rights protection will only allow those in power in the future to take revenge for years of passive discrimination. A balanced and fair updated civil rights laws that use current, contemporary measures to define excessive patterns of overt and passive discrimination is in the best interest of both political parties and Americans in general.

  • BBWeekly

    I highly doubt that this is even an issue a few months from now. Unless someone is dumb enough to engage in overt discrimination (partisan machinations are not racial discrimination). They won’t pass anything and this will go away ….

  • Ruby Bruce

    Democrats in the South caused the need for the law to be enacted. How is that a problem for the GOP?

    • anthony002

      it is a problem because what is left of those Democrats of the 1960’s are now Republicans.

  • kramartini

    If the “worst” consequence of the end of Section 5 is the enforcement of voter ID laws that are supported by a large majority of Americans, the Republicans don’t have a problem…

  • breanna

    civil rights activists, and most minorities, claim the banner “equal rights for all” each and every time. but they are not acting on behalf of “all”. they are only acting on behalf of themselves and demanding MORE than (and not equal to). True equality, if they believe in it, starts with getting rid of affirmative action and all those other “laws” that treat white people unequaly.

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