In Senate, it's d'j' vu all over again on Voting Rights Act extension

An extension of the Voting Rights Act is running into some of the same objections in the Senate that it faces in the House, where the bill was pulled from the floor schedule last week after rank-and-file Republicans rebelled against their leadership.

Southern Senate conservatives are raising concerns about reauthorizing Section 5 of the law, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to pre-clear voting-law changes with the Justice Department. Some Southerners argue that the requirement is unnecessarily onerous and that their states should not be singled out in perpetuity.

“Our part of the country, no matter how good we do, we’re going to be treated differently than the rest of the country,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Lott, one of two current senators who cast a vote against the 1982 extension of the original 1965 law, said he would most likely support the bill but did not commit to doing so.

“I want to see what it is first,” said Lott, who was House Republican whip when he voted against the last reauthorization.

“I haven’t focused on it,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who also voted against the initial House version of the 1982 bill before the House cleared the Senate’s measure by voice vote.

Shelby referred questions to fellow Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee. That panel is expected to include its voting-rights legislation, which is identical to the House bill, on its markup agenda for tomorrow. The bill was placed on last week’s agenda, but the committee was unable to muster a quorum for consideration.

More than half of the committee’s 18 members are co-sponsors of the legislation, but it is not clear whether senators who dislike certain provisions could cobble together enough votes to alter it.

“I think it needs to be studied, and I think there are certainly some improvements that can be made,” Sessions said. “I think we may improve it and pass it.”

Sessions declined to say which parts he would change or how he would change them.

Many of the law’s provisions are permanent, but several are due to expire next year. Democrats and some centrist Republicans are eager to win reauthorization of those provisions before GOP term limits force Sensenbrenner to hand his gavel to a more conservative lawmaker.

Lawmakers and aides say privately that the political sensitivity of the landmark civil-rights law makes it difficult for them to challenge its composition for fear of being branded racist.

Lott, who is considering a leadership bid, was pushed out of the majority leader’s job in late 2002 after he suggested the country would have been better off had Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) won his 1948 segregationist bid for the presidency.

“I think the Voting Rights Act is the most important civil-rights bill in history,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Judiciary Committee member who is not a co-sponsor of the legislation. But, he said, “There are some real questions about whether we’re being fair to some states.”

In the House, a bloc of Georgia and Texas Republicans banded together with lawmakers opposed to provisions allowing for multilingual ballots to avert a floor vote last week. House Republican leaders have yet to reschedule it.

“We are continuing to have conversations with members … about some provisions in the bill, and those conversations will continue this week,” House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said yesterday.

Leaders in both parties and members of the Congressional Black Caucus have signed off on the Sensenbrenner-Specter bill. But Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood, both Georgia Republicans, wanted to amend Section 5.

The Norwood amendment would expand its requirements to the entire country, and Westmoreland’s amendment would have created an expedited procedure for states to get off of the pre-clearance list.

Section 5 covers Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and parts of several other states, including California, New York and North Carolina.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and dozens of others objected to language reauthorizing multilingual ballots.

Many of the same concerns are being echoed, if softly, on the Senate side, where an effort to control expectations is beginning to take shape.

“It has a year to go, and clearly the Democrats are trying to make it an election-year issue,” Hatch said.