Dems tread carefully on voting rights bill

Democrats in both chambers are working behind the scenes to draft legislation to re-install the Voting Rights Act protections shot down by the Supreme Court over the summer.

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But in a sign of the delicate nature of the topic, Senate Democrats are taking care not to rush ahead of the House, for fear of sinking the bill's chances in the GOP-controlled lower chamber.

Instead, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is working with House Democrats and a small contingent of House Republicans – notably former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), who championed the 2006 VRA reauthorization – in an effort to defuse the partisan politics surrounding the thorny issue and forge a bill that has the best chance of becoming law.

"We've had hearings and now we're just trying to quietly get some support, because I don't want to bring up something that doesn't go anywhere," Leahy said Thursday.

Leahy said he'd hoped a July hearing on the VRA – which featured testimony from Sensenbrenner and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights hero – would have propelled the debate and made the case for bipartisan support of a fix.

But the August recess, the arrival of the Syria crisis and the fierce fight over the government shutdown have all intervened to slow the process, and the negotiators have yet to produce even a draft bill.

"I thought having Jim Sensenbrenner and John Lewis [as] the first people to testify shows that there is a reason for it," Leahy said. "We'd probably be further along now if we hadn't had this shutdown, which threw everything off."

By treading carefully – and taking steps to get House GOP leaders on board – the Democrats are taking lessons from debates of the past few months, when the Senate has passed bills with broad bipartisan support only to see them founder in the House. 

In June, for instance, the Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill, which GOP leaders have refused to bring up. More recently, the Senate approved legislation designed to eliminate employer-based discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people – a measure that was panned by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) even before it reached the House.

"If they go first, there's no assurance [the House will act]," a House Democratic aide said this week. "It has no impact." 

Sensenbrenner has been an anomaly in his party for his vocal support of a legislative response to the Supreme Court's VRA decision, which found that the decades-old formula dictating which states must get federal approval to change election laws is outdated and therefore unconstitutional. 

But he could have a powerful ally in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has signaled support for a response to the high court's ruling. Before the August recess, Cantor had met one-on-one with Lewis to discuss the subject, and Lewis said afterwards that the Virginia Republican is "by all means" supportive of a legislative fix. 

Cantor spokesman Douglas Heye said Friday that the majority leader has remained a part of discussion since the recess.

"Majority Leader Cantor continues to meet with members of both parties in the hopes of finding a positive path forward regarding the Voting Rights Act," Heye said in an email.

"There is no current timetable," he added.

Leahy was similarly vague about when a bill might surface.

"There is a time," he said. "And I'll be sure that you all know when I do introduce it."

Other House negotiators, however, are approaching the talks with much greater outward urgency. 

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of the leaders in the effort to rewrite the VRA, suggested last week that a draft bill will be finalized near mid-November. Pushing the debate to next year, Scott warned, risks entangling the debate in the tough politics of the mid-terms.

"We're still working, and we're pretty close," Scott said. "Hopefully we can get it done this calendar year so that we're not dealing with it in an election year."

Scott acknowledged the political difficulty of passing VRA reforms in such a toxically partisan environment. But he said success is possible "if we get a good draft."