After two trips to the Deep South alongside civil rights icon and Georgia Democrat John Lewis, the pressure is on Eric Cantor to deliver on the Voting Rights Act.
The majority leader has made a major, personal investment in connecting to the civil rights movement — something that ultimately could prove important for a GOP that regularly polls in the single digits among African-Americans and poorly among other minorities.
But translating participation in the Faith and Politics Institute’s annual pilgrimage into legislative text that can win support from the bulk of the Republican Conference isn’t an easy task.
And so far, Cantor hasn’t laid out a clear path for a bill nine months after declaring his support for a congressional response to the Supreme Court decision striking down the VRA's core enforcement mechanisms.
Democrats have signaled that they trust Cantor, a Virginia Republican, on this issue, and that the extent to which he is able to help advance a VRA fix depends largely on his ability to mobilize his flock, many of whom are hostile to the idea.
“A lot of what is happening on the other side of the aisle wouldn’t be happening if it were up to Cantor,” said the House’s No. 3 Democrat, James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, adding that many far-right Republicans “relish in gumming up the works.” Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said the majority leader is working diligently to address “concerns on all sides” of the issue.
“[He] wants to see if we can find a path forward and really get it right,” she said. “He wants to make sure we preserve every American’s right to vote.”
For sure, there are Democrats who have strong feelings about what Congress should do to address a revised VRA. For one thing, they want to make sure states with historically high frequencies of voter disenfranchisement and discrimination are still held accountable.
When the Supreme Court handed down its 5-4 ruling in June, it gutted the preclearance provision that required many states — predominantly in the South — to obtain federal court approval before changing local voting rules and regulations. Any VRA rewrite taken up by Congress would address the preclearance requirement, and the bill that’s been introduced by former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and current ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., would limit states subjected to that mandate to only four: Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.
“I’m catching hell from the left,” Clyburn, the House Democratic Caucus’ point person on bipartisan VRA negotiations, told CQ Roll Call. “They don’t think the bill is good enough. I just read a piece … from a person from the NAACP down in Mississippi or Alabama, just a scathing commentary.”
But Clyburn said the vast majority of his colleagues were prepared to support a VRA fix that, while not perfect, was a step in the right direction. Sources familiar with talks agreed with that assessment, adding that it was important not to conflate outside activists’ stated opposition with any serious interest in derailing efforts on Capitol Hill.
“Civil rights groups are attempting to refine their positions but have no ultimate disagreement with the aims of the bill,” said one House Democratic aide close to the negotiations. “They’re not going to oppose it. To the extent that there is a delay based upon substance, it’s not the Democrats.”
If a VRA rewrite fails to advance in the House, Democrats say, blame will rest squarely on Republicans.
Many Southern GOP lawmakers lauded the Supreme Court for removing the stigma that their states were hotbeds of racial intolerance and recognizing that these states had over the years changed their ways. These same members are less than enthusiastic about Congress putting them back in the preclearance penalty box.
One such lawmaker is Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who participated in the past week’s pilgrimage. He described the chill he felt standing in the Jackson, Miss., driveway where Medgar Evers, a black civil rights activist, was murdered in 1963 with his wife and children just inside their home — but he said that the experience didn’t change his opposition to a VRA update that would single out states like his.
“You can’t have something that creates different classes of states. And if you’re gonna do something, it’s gotta apply to everybody,” Harper said. “Why wouldn’t it be based on future events instead of pulling people back in based on something that has happened in the past? What’s your standard gonna be?”
Cantor also has to navigate pushback on a rewrite from some outside conservative groups.
“It is 2014, not 1965. This bill really isn’t about the [Supreme Court] decision. It is about having the federal government manipulate election rules and propagate racial gerrymandering and guarantee success for Democratic candidates,” according to a Heritage Foundation analysis on the Sensenbrenner-Conyers proposal. The think tank’s advocacy arm, Heritage Action for America, aligns itself with this position.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., expressed an opposite view on Tuesday: “We ought not to delude ourselves or pretend that there are some who believe that limiting the number of voters through various means is advantageous," he said.
Hoyer said he and Cantor had a chance to talk about the VRA during the pilgrimage, however, and that they would be meeting again this week to follow up.
“He’s been very positive in his response and I’m hopeful we can bring this bill to the floor before the summer,” Hoyer told reporters at his weekly briefing, adding that he’d received no specific promises about what Cantor would and would not support.
“He didn’t make any representation as to what he was going to do or not do,” he emphasized. “I don’t want to leave you with that impression.”
In fact, Cantor has not yet even said whether he would support the legislation introduced by Sensenbrenner and Conyers, or anything resembling that framework.
On Tuesday night, Conyers suggested that Cantor was still a hard figure to pin down.
“Eric Cantor was with us in Alabama and Mississippi over the weekend, so he was improving his credentials,” Conyers said. “But we didn’t have any discussions, as a matter of fact.”