Lawmakers likely to push voting rights

A House Republican who led the last push to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act exhorted lawmakers Wednesday to join him in bringing the law back to life.

The day after the Supreme Court quashed the anti-discrimination statute, Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) urged lawmakers to cast aside their differences and restore the rejected provisions for the sake of voter protection.

“The Voting Rights Act is vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process,” Sensenbrenner, the second-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday in a statement. 

“This is going to 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.”

Republican Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Sean Duffy (Wis.) also expressed support Wednesday for congressional action in response to the high court’s ruling.

They have a difficult road ahead. Although Sensenbrenner had little trouble reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act as Judiciary chairman in 2006, the parties have grown further apart since then, and there are real doubts about whether Congress can agree to an update now.

The difficulties are magnified by the court’s ruling, which struck down a formula that had been in place since 1975 to determine which districts must receive federal approval before changing their voting practices. 

In order to craft a new formula, lawmakers would essentially have to reach a consensus about which parts of the country are most likely to discriminate against minorities — a charged question that could prove politically explosive.

Both Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) remained silent Wednesday about the path forward for changes to the law.

“We are reviewing this decision,” Boehner told reporters in the Capitol.

The absence of enthusiasm from Republican leaders has led some lawmakers to fear that the partisan stalemates that have practically defined this Congress will  also doom efforts to save the Voting Rights Act.

“I am deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil-rights icon, said after Wednesday’s ruling.

Tuesday’s 5-4 decision struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required a number of states with a history of racial discrimination to get Washington’s approval before changing their voting procedures.

Behind Chief Justice John Roberts, the court’s conservative majority found that the formula dictating which states are subject to the extra hurdles — defined by Section 4 of the law — is outdated and therefore unconstitutional. 

“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Roberts wrote. “Our country has changed...” 

The court did not invalidate Section 5 of the law, which empowers the federal government to require pre-clearance of voting changes for certain states and localities. But without a formula to determine which regions are subject to the extra scrutiny, Section 5 is effectively defunct.

Roberts invited Congress to “draft another formula based on current conditions,” and Sensenbrenner said he plans to do just that.

“I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling,” Sensenbrenner said, “but my colleagues and I will work in a bipartisan fashion to update Section 4 to ensure Section 5 can be properly implemented to protect voting rights, especially for minorities.”

Chabot, another senior Republican on the Judiciary panel, said the Supreme Court ruling has handed lawmakers an opportunity that they should take advantage of.

House Democrats are eyeing legislation to overturn the court’s decision. The entire caucus met Wednesday afternoon with Department of Justice officials to discuss their options. Exiting that meeting, the lawmakers seemed to agree that the issue would be a party priority in the weeks and months to come. 

“It’s really a step backward, and it’s not a reflection of what’s really happening in our country in some of these places,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday of the ruling. 

Pelosi is already floating a name for a possible bill: “I would like to see something ... called the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” she said.

This story was posted at 3:05 p.m. and updated at 8:05 p.m.