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 Davis RyanOcasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud Juan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump 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 GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling 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 Andrew BoehnerAmash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows Border funding bill highlights the problem of 'the Senate keyhole' 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 SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellHouse Democrats seek to move past rifts with minimum wage bill Democrats rush to support Pelosi amid fight with Ocasio-Cortez New CBO report fuels fight over minimum wage 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."