Policy

Champions of Voting Rights Act Compromise Are Cautiously Optimistic

An eclectic group of House and Senate lawmakers expressed cautious optimism Thursday afternoon that their proposed "modernization" of the historic Voting Rights Act would become law this year.

None of the members assembled for the last-minute news conference were prepared to say it would be an easy sell to their colleagues on either side of the aisle or Rotunda — especially in the Republican-run House, where GOP lawmakers from southern states are sensitive to accusations of racial discrimination.

The proponents of passing a VRA rewrite stressed that they see an appetite among their peers to respond to the challenge the Supreme Court posed to Congress last summer: Rewrite for the 21st century the provision of the historic law that the court struck down, the one that determines which states must receive federal permission to change their voting rules and regulations.

They added that their bill, fiercely negotiated behind closed doors for several months, would satiate that appetite.

"I think we have hit a goldmine here," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who oversaw the last extension of the VRA in 2006.

The Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., are co-sponsors of the House bill reflecting the bicameral proposal.

"This is not something that is going to be filibustered in the Senate," pledged Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the sponsor of the Senate legislation, which is also being championed by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

The success of their proposal, the members argued at the Thursday news conference, was that it struck a number of compromises designed to win favor from lawmakers all along the political spectrum.

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, told reporters he could hardly believe the delicate balance negotiators were able to reach.

"It's amazing to me, it's unbelievable, it's almost unreal, that we were able to come together so quickly to craft a compromise that both Democrats and Republicans can find a way to support and move forward," said Lewis. "Each side had to give up a little to come up with a solution. I will admit that it's not a perfect deal. But it's a necessary and good beginning. We had to do what we could."

Though the lawmakers wouldn't get into specifics of the gives-and-takes of negotiation, the bill lowers the bar for forcing states to submit to "pre-clearance" requirements, increases transparency when states change their voting laws and enables jurisdictions to enact "reasonable" voter identification requirements.

At the heart of the proposed changes to the VRA, however, is the rewrite of the pre-clearance formula ruled unconstitutional last summer by the Supreme Court. Under the new proposal, "current conditions" would be used to decide which states had a worrisome record of racial discrimination at the polls. Four states would automatically fall into that category: Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

are likely to take issue

Leahy won't have a problem selling the bill to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but proponents of the legislation in the House will have to get the support of GOP leadership just to get the measure brought up in the Judiciary Committee, let alone on the floor.

Sensenbrenner said he has spoken with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who, while not involved in this round of negotiations, has signaled an openness to moving ahead on a VRA fix.

Neither Sensenbrenner nor Conyers had a good read on where House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., stood on the proposal.

"I fully support protecting the voting rights of all Americans," Goodlatte told 218 in a statement. "As Congress determines whether additional steps are needed to protect those rights, I look forward to reviewing the legislation."