By Mike Lillis - 01/20/14 06:00 AM EST
Cantor in a pickle on voting rights
The arrival of a bipartisan bill to modernize the 1965 Voting Rights Act has put Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a pickle.
The House majority leader has been a rare Republican voice urging assurances that last year's Supreme Court decision to nullify core provisions of the landmark voter protection bill won't foster discrimination at the polls.
Yet he's given no indication how Congress should proceed or what he would support – a vague position that will be tested now that specific legislation has been introduced with the backing of several prominent Republicans.
Cantor's office said he's still examining the proposal, which would require states with five violations of federal voting laws over the last 15 years to get pre-clearance from Washington before altering their election procedures. All eyes will be on the majority leader's response, which could be the make-or-break moment for the proposal's chances this year.
There are compelling reasons for Cantor to get on board. As the majority leader, Cantor is on the front lines of the fight to increase the GOP’s control over the lower chamber in November. Republican leaders won't want to be seen blocking a bill designed to protect voters – particularly one with bipartisan support – especially at a time where they’re trying to expand their party’s minority outreach.
The bill also includes a sweetener for Virginians. Under the old provisions shot down by the Supreme Court, the Old Dominion was one of nine states with histories of voter discrimination required to get federal approval before they changed their election procedures. Under the new proposal – which aims to update the formula dictating which states are subject to the extra scrutiny – only four states would be forced to seek such approval. Virginia is not among them.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a long-time voting rights champion and a lead sponsor of the updated protections, noted Thursday that Rep. Spencer Bachus (R) has already endorsed the measure. Like Virginia, Bachus's home-state of Alabama was one of the initial nine states requiring preclearance that would be dropped from the list under the new formula.
"There is Southern support for it," Sensenbrenner said.
GOP Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Sean Duffy (Wis.) have also endorsed the bill.
Yet there are also political reasons for Republican leaders to be wary of the proposal. For one thing, the four states requiring federal "preclearance" under the new bill are Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia – all GOP strongholds that won't want any of the stigma or embarrassment that would come with being named among the few remaining pockets of the country where race-based voter discrimination has been a recent problem.
Additionally, the protections outlined in the new bill are aimed at empowering minority voters, who typically lean Democratic.
Another factor determining GOP support might whether conservative and Tea Party groups weigh in on the bill. Heritage Action, among the most influential of those groups, is still examining the bill but will soon issue a verdict, spokesman Dan Holler said Friday.
Sensenbrenner – who was head of the Judiciary Committee in 2006 when the Voting Rights Act was last reauthorized and was also involved in a similar effort in the 1980s – said he's "had discussions" with Cantor about the bill. But he suggested the majority leader's position won't come overnight.
"As you know, the way the leadership operates is they cogitate and think and then they listen to complaints and stuff like that. … We faced this problem during my tenure in Congress both in 1982 and 2006," the Wisconsin Republican said Thursday.
"[In] the two reauthorizations that I have participated in the bill has come up, maybe not as quickly as I would have liked to have had it, but when it has come up it has passed overwhelmingly in both houses," Sensenbrenner added.
Cantor's office did not respond to requests for comment Friday, but said a day earlier that they're still reading the bill.
The office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
An ardent conservative who fights regularly to limit the reach of the federal government, Cantor might seem an improbable voice for strengthening Washington's oversight over state and local elections. But a March trip with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to Selma, Ala. – where Lewis was savagely beaten during a landmark civil rights march in 1965 – left a mark on the Virginia Republican. He described it as "a profound experience" illustrating "the fortitude it took to … ensure equal protection for all."
Several months later, he was one of the few Republicans to call for some response to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the voter protection formula determining which locales were subject to the federal preclearance requirement.
"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," Cantor said at the time.
Across the Capitol, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and another lead sponsor of the law’s modernization, said "several" Republicans "have made clear" to him that they'd support the bill if it comes to the floor.
"I'm waiting to see which ones may want to put their name on it ahead of time," he said.
Still, Leahy predicted the proposal would pass without a filibuster threat if it's brought up.
"I think you're going to see people on the bill in the Senate go across the political spectrum," the Judiciary Committee chairman said.