Republicans slam brakes on voting rights bill

 

House Republican leaders are slamming the brakes on voting rights legislation, insisting that any movement on the issue go through a key Republican committee chairman who opposes the proposal.

House Democrats are pressing hard on GOP leaders to bring the new voter protections directly to the floor.

ADVERTISEMENT
That would sidestep consideration in the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has rejected a bipartisan proposal to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a central provision of that law.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerCameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando Juan Williams: The capitulation of Paul Ryan MORE (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders say the bill must go through Judiciary.

“Speaker Boehner has said that he believes that the Voting Rights Act has been an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy. That’s why we reauthorized the law for 25 years in 2006,” a Boehner spokesperson said Friday in an email. “He also believes that if members want to change the law, those discussions will have to begin at the Judiciary Committee.”

That position effectively kills the legislation, as Goodlatte, after staging a hearing on the issue in 2013, has maintained that a congressional response is unnecessary because the Court left intact other parts of the VRA ensuring voters are protected –– a message his office reiterated on Friday.

“The Voting Rights Act is alive and well and protecting the freedom to vote,” a Judiciary aide said in an email. 

House Democrats believed that Republicans were open to moving the legislation directly to the floor.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said he spoke with Boehner last week, and that Boehner had made Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) “the point man” on the issue.

“He [Boehner] didn't mention Judiciary to me,” Clyburn said Tuesday. “When I spoke to him, he mentioned Kevin McCarthy being the point person on this and, quite frankly, I'm assuming [he] is the person we would be dealing with.”

On Thursday, Clyburn amplified those remarks, saying he expects the discussion to proceed through McCarthy, though he hasn't talked to the majority leader recently.

“He is still the point man, but I have not discussed it with him,” Clyburn said. “The Speaker led me to believe that he [McCarthy] would reach out to me when he wanted to talk.”

But McCarthy's office on Friday disputed those claims, suggesting the only pathway supported by GOP leaders is through the Judiciary panel.

“I am unaware of any of the claims made by Mr. Clyburn,” a McCarthy aide said in a short email. “However, the Leader has said that this issue should be handled in Committee.”

Democratic leaders have inserted the VRA debate into the appropriations process, which ground to a screeching halt last month over partisan disagreements surrounding the Confederate flag. The Democrats have offered to divorce the flag issue from the Republicans' spending bills if GOP leaders would move on the VRA update. 

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon who has his own VRA bill, has been in talks with McCarthy about breaking the impasse.

Boehner last month seemed to reject that approach, saying the effort to fund the government and prevent a shutdown will shift in September to a continuing resolution (CR) in lieu of individual appropriations bills. But that's done little to discourage the pro-VRA Democrats, who want to attach voting rights language to the stop-gap spending measure when the House returns to Washington.

“We can do that as part of a CR,” Clyburn said.

The comments arrive as Democrats are escalating their calls for Republicans to bring the enhanced voter protections to the House floor. In their last public event before leaving town for the long August recess, the Democrats swarmed the Capitol’s east steps Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the VRA's enactment –– and to highlight the GOP's inaction on the issue.

They didn’t mince words.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) characterized the VRA as “one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in the history of our democracy.” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, said Congress “has a moral obligation to act to prevent states and counties from … diluting the voting power of minority communities.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C), head of the Black Caucus, warned that a failure to act “will be an invitation to states and their subdivisions to pass discriminatory election laws with impunity.” And Lewis –– who was beaten nearly to death during a pivotal 1965 march in Selma, Ala., that led directly to the VRA's passage –– said nothing short of the country's commitment to democracy is at stake.

“People struggled; people died; people were murdered,” Lewis said. “We've come too far. We've made too much progress, and we cannot and must not go back.”

In its 5-4 decision in June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the VRA's decades-old coverage formula, which had required certain states to get federal approval before changing election rules. The law had applied on a blanket basis to nine states – most of them in the South – with documented histories of racial discrimination.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that, while Congress has the authority to monitor elections for fairness, the coverage formula is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

Roberts invited Congress to “draft another formula based on current conditions.”

In February, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), former chairman of the Judiciary Committee who championed the last VRA update in 2006, and John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the panel, introduced legislation designed to do just that. But the issue was never taken up by House GOP leaders. 

The effects of the Court's decision were immediate, as a number of states –– including Texas, North Carolina and Alabama –– moved quickly to adopt tougher election policies, including new voter registration and voter ID requirements. 

Supporters of those laws say they're needed to prevent election fraud and other malfeasance at the polls. Critics contend they're a political ploy designed to discourage participation, particularly among minorities who tend to vote Democratic.

Butterfield said it took North Carolina legislators exactly one month to pass “the most discriminatory laws in the nation.”

But Goodlatte's office suggested such claims are overblown, arguing that remaining sections of the VRA are sufficient to protect voting rights, “including the section that allows federal judges to place jurisdictions under a preclearance regime if those jurisdictions act in an unconstitutional and discriminatory manner.” 

A similar debate has occurred in the Senate, where Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who's pushing companion legislation to the Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill, has found no Republican support. 

Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that he's had conversations with GOP leaders about his bill, but they've led nowhere.

“They've been frustrating because –– I don't know, maybe people month-by-month lose any memory of history,” Leahy said. “It should be a no-brainer.”

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary panel, echoed Goodlatte's argument Friday, suggesting a congressional response to the Court's ruling is simply not needed.

“Voting discrimination remains illegal after the Supreme Court’s ruling, and cases are still being brought under separate sections of the Voting Rights Act,” Grassley said in an email. “As Sen. Leahy found out last year when he didn’t mark up a bill, there is no consensus on how to move forward.”