Ryan backs voting rights bill — but tells black caucus it's out of his hands

Ryan backs voting rights bill — but tells black caucus it's out of his hands
© Cameron Lancaster

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanFreedom Caucus member fires back: The swamp drained Trump Top GOP senator rips Ryan for rejecting bipartisan outreach Ryan: Nunes source a ‘whistleblower type’ MORE (R-Wis.) told black lawmakers Wednesday that he supports new voting rights protections they've championed, but said he won't bypass a committee chairman to move legislation, according to a Democrat who attended the gathering. 

"He said it right in front of everybody — he said he supports the [Jim] Sensenbrenner bill," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said after Ryan met with the group on Capitol Hill.

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"So somebody was saying, 'Well, why don't you go tell your committee chair to do it?' " Cleaver added. "And he said, … 'Look, I can't do that.' "  

Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a former chairman of the Judiciary panel, has sponsored bipartisan legislation to update the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a central provision of the 1965 law.

But Sensenbrenner's proposal does not have the backing of the current Judiciary chairman, Rep. Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteMoving Copyright Office authorities to executive branch could improve accountability Register of copyrights should be presidential appointee Week ahead: Senate takes aim at Obama-era 'blacklisting' rule MORE (R-Va.), who maintains the Supreme Court left ample protections in the VRA, thereby making congressional action unnecessary. 

Ryan ascended to the speakership last fall following the resignation of former-Rep. John BoehnerJohn BoehnerPaul Ryan sells out conservatives with healthcare surrender Matt Schlapp: 5 lessons Trump, Ryan must learn from healthcare debate Nunes rebuffs calls for recusal MORE (R-Ohio), who was nudged out by conservatives who accused him of hoarding power at the expense of the committees. 

Ryan, a former chairman of both the Budget and Ways and Means panels, has vowed to return to a bottom-up approach that transfers power back to rank-and-file members. 

Ryan told the CBC Wednesday that any voting rights legislation must move by that bottom-up process, Cleaver said. 

"He said, 'I told my own conference I'm not going to do it, so I'm not going to come up here and tell you anything differently. … I want it to be the product of the committee,' " Cleaver said.

"I, frankly, like that," Cleaver added. "Because … we have not had regular order around here in a long time."

Other Democrats have a different view. 

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week that the Sensenbrenner bill, co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), would pass "if it gets to the floor." He's urging Ryan to make that happen. 

The Speaker's vow not to sidestep Goodlatte on the issue, however, puts a likely nail in the coffin of any voting rights bill this year.

Enacted at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the VRA had required certain states to get federal pre-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. 

In its 5-4 decision in June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the decades-old formula dictating which regions are subject to the additional layer of scrutiny. 

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

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

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill is aimed at meeting that challenge, creating a new formula that would require federal pre-clearance in four states — Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana.

A separate House bill is similar but broader. Sponsored by Reps. Terri SewellTerri SewellA guide to the committees: House CBC to Trump: Keep Richard Cordray, ensure the protection of American consumers WHIP LIST: More than 60 Dems boycotting Trump's inauguration MORE (D-Ala.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), it creates a new formula capturing 13 states, including California, Texas, New York, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Arizona.

Citing Goodlatte's jurisdiction over the issue, House GOP leaders have refused to take up the Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill. Ryan's comments to the CBC Wednesday suggested that trend would continue.

The inaction could have practical ramifications. In the wake of the decision, 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 fight voter fraud. Opponents argue that they're a scheme to discourage voting by blacks and other minorities, who tend to support Democrats. The CBC has been among the loudest advocates for the VRA update. 

Cleaver suggested that Ryan adopt regular order, but make an exception for the VRA bill.

"He said he's not going to try to control everything, which you can respect — but just control this one," Cleaver said. 

Ryan's office declined to comment Wednesday, citing a "private conversation."