House Democrats are floating a legislative deal linking the thorny Confederate flag debate with expanded voting rights.
Republican leaders last week were forced to scrap a vote on an Interior Department spending bill — and suspend their appropriations schedule indefinitely — over a partisan disagreement about displaying the Confederate flag in national cemeteries.
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said Thursday that Democratic leaders will drop their push to attach flag-related amendments to appropriations bills, freeing Republicans to pursue their spending agenda, if GOP leaders will agree to consider an update to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a central part of which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
"I'm here to say to you that the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the full Democratic Caucus are willing to sit down with the Speaker and work out a way for us to allow the proper display and utilization of ... the flag in certain instances if he would only sit down with us and work out an appropriate addressing of the amendments to the Voting Rights Act," Clyburn said during a press briefing in the Capitol.
"We believe that there's a proper place for all of us to honor our heritage, and nothing is more of a heritage to African-Americans than the right to vote."
The Democrats have been pushing a VRA update unsuccessfully for two years. With their new strategy, they're hoping the high-profile controversy surrounding the Confederate flag — which has only deepened since last month's racially charged killing of nine parishioners at an historic black church in Charleston, S.C. — will give them leverage in that fight.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) alluded to the Charleston massacre Thursday, suggesting that House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge Lobbying world MORE (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders need to do more to address institutional racism than attend funerals in the wake of tragedies.
"There has been an opportunity for the Republican majority not just to send a condolence card or show up at a service but to translate that into action," Pelosi said. "And we are now segueing from the conversation about the flag to a conversation about voting rights now."
The voting rights issue has been under the spotlight since June of 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a VRA formula defining which states required federal approval before changing their election procedures. 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 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that, while the federal government has the authority to monitor elections for fairness, the coverage formula is outdated and therefore unconstitutional. He invited Congress to update the parameters.
"Our country has changed," Roberts wrote, "and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."
The ruling has had immediate practical implications, as a number of conservative states — including Texas, North Carolina and Alabama — have since adopted stricter voting requirements that had been on hold under the old VRA.
Supporters of the tougher laws, which include new photo ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements, say they're necessary to fight voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the election process.
Critics counter that problems of fraud are exaggerated, and the tougher rules are just a Republican gambit to discourage minority and other vulnerable voters, who tend to side with the Democrats.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was savagely beaten during a landmark civil rights march that led directly to the VRA's passage in 1965, said Thursday that the tougher state requirements are a naked conspiracy to disenfranchise certain groups.
"Across the country, there's a deliberate, systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for the disabled, students, seniors, minorities, the poor, and rural voters to participate in a democratic process," Lewis said. "We must not let that happen."
In February, Reps. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerProtecting the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to the voting booth Republicans compare Ron Johnson to Joe McCarthy: NYT GOP puts pressure on Pelosi over Swalwell MORE (R-Wis.), the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the panel, introduced legislation to update the VRA's coverage formula. Lewis and Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellPressure builds on Democratic leadership over HBCU funding Thousands march on Washington in voting rights push Activists gear up for voting rights march to mark King anniversary MORE (D-Ala.) have introduced similar bills.
GOP leaders have declined to move the legislation, arguing that the current VRA offers sufficient voter protections — a message amplified by Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden MORE (R-Va.) in response to questions Thursday.
"While the Supreme Court struck down the old coverage formula that required certain states to pre-clear their voting rule changes with the federal government, the Court left in place other important tools in the Voting Rights Act, including the section that allows federal judges to place jurisdictions under a pre-clearance regime if those jurisdictions act in an unconstitutional and discriminatory manner," Goodlatte said in an email.
"So, strong remedies against unconstitutional voting discrimination remain in place today."
A GOP leadership aide noted only that, "Any action on the VRA would begin at the Judiciary Committee."
This story was updates at 5 p.m.