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Williams: Cantor can leave House as a hero

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Last week’s column reported that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) were waiting on Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to bring an immigration bill to the floor after he beat back anti-reform Republicans and won his primary race in Virginia.

Well, we’ll never know, will we?

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The question now is what Cantor can do to build a political legacy, so that history records him as something more than just the highest-ranking Republican to suffer defeat in a primary.

Here is a suggestion for Cantor: In his last act as majority leader, he should bring legislation to the floor to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) before the August recess.

Cantor is one of the few Republicans in the House to openly express a desire to revive the VRA. The Supreme Court last year destroyed the heart of the law, striking down a provision requiring states with a history of voting bias to get preclearance for any changes to their voting rules.

Cantor was the only Republican from the House leadership to travel to Mississippi and Alabama earlier this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s “Freedom Summer,” which was aimed at securing voting rights for Southern blacks.

At the time he said: “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.”

One lasting memory from that trip was to see Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, standing with the brother of murdered Jewish civil rights worker Andrew Goodman. A rabbi chanted Hebrew prayers to bless Goodman’s sacrifice as well as the memory of two others, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, killed by people intent on stopping young activists from bringing voting rights to black people in the South.

I sat with Cantor after that emotional moment, and he told me he had brought his son on a civil rights pilgrimage to the South the year before. He said he felt he was “a better person” after making the trip, which he described as “a profound experience.” He was emotional as he talked about the “fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all.”

Just last week, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) placed the blame for the spread of restrictive new voting laws squarely on House Republicans.

At an event titled “Voting in America,” hosted by The Hill at the Library of Congress, Hoyer said top Republicans are happy to end weekend voting, reduce the number of polling places and limit hours for voting because the GOP wants to “restrict the number of voters who are single, minority, poor or [college] educated.” All of those groups have a history of voting for Democrats.

Panelists at The Hill event as diverse as former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) spoke in support of keeping polls open on weekends.

A new group called “Why Tuesday?” co-sponsored the event. “The inconvenience of Tuesday [voting] is the No. 1 reason why people say they don’t vote,” said William Wachtel, co-founder of the group.

The stage is set for Cantor to change the narrative of his final days in the House. He could transform his image from that of a defeated leader to that of a man who got off the mat to stand up and protect the Constitutional right to vote.

In January, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill to create a new voting rights bill that limits preclearance of election procedures to states that have been found guilty of violating rules in the last 15 years. The plan has support from civil rights groups as well as bipartisan support in the House from Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).

Another proposal comes from a presidential commission on elections co-chaired by lawyers Ben Ginsberg, a Republican, and Bob Bauer, a Democrat. They favor “expansion of voting before Election Day,” more online voter registration and putting polling places “close to where voters live.”

The Brennan Center for Justice, which monitors voting rights around the country, reports a surge in state efforts to shape rules for voting. According to the center “lawmakers in most states have introduced scores of bills to expand voting access.” That is quite different from the 2012 cycle, when Brennan found “41 states introduced 180 restrictive voting bills, with 19 states ultimately passing 27 measures.”

Cantor is in position for a bold move.

Based on momentum in the states, he could take the lead role to revive federal action on the Voting Rights Act. If he did so, he would exit the political stage as a hero.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.