House Republicans face a political dilemma as they consider how — and whether — to rewrite the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court neutered some of its most powerful provisions last week.
Failing to act would undermine the party’s efforts to reach out to minority voters and potentially prompt a backlash that drives up Democratic turnout. But passing any law that reinstates federal preclearance of voting laws in some states would face a bruising battle in Congress.
Lawmakers in any affected states would be almost certain to protest a rewrite, while Democrats have an incentive to insist on the broadest possible bill.
Even with the difficult politics, Republicans seem willing to try.
A Republican aide familiar with negotiations said that “discussions among top Republicans and Democrats are already under way, with every intention of introducing a legislative solution,” but leadership has yet to commit to bringing a measure to the floor.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is leading the Republican charge to rewrite his own rewrite.
In 2006, it was Sensenbrenner, then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who worked to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act a year early, before it expired in 2007, fearing that a different Congress would not be able to pass a reauthorization.
After the court's ruling last week, Sensenbrenner said the Voting Rights Act was “vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process” and pledged that he and his colleagues “will work in a bipartisan fashion” to update the law.
Sensenbrenner did warn, however, that it will “take time and will require members from both sides of the aisle to put partisan politics aside and ensure Americans’ most sacred right is protected.”
An aide to Sensenbrenner said any solution must be “completely bipartisan” and “comply with the objections of the Supreme Court.”
When asked by Salon.com in March whether Republicans would have the political will to update the law if the court struck it down, Sensenbrenner was blunt. "I'm gonna make them fix it," he said at the time.
However, John Feehery, a former aide to then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, questioned whether the parties can get anything done.
“I’m not sure that’s doable given the partisanship in the House right now,” Feehery told CQ Roll Call on Monday. He said such a deal would probably require an agreement between the Congressional Black Caucus and House conservatives — a tall order.
Still, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., already have a dialogue. Cantor recently visited Selma, Ala., with Lewis — a visit Cantor cited in his push last week for congressional action in the wake of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision.
“My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all,” 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.”
But putting partisan politics aside — especially when dealing with voting laws — is easier issued in a press release than written into law.
Speaker John A. Boehner, who avoided issuing a release after the ruling, so far has been noncommittal. “We’re reviewing the decision and trying to make some determination about a pathway forward," the Ohio Republican said. "But we haven’t made any decisions as of yet.”
Perhaps no incident epitomizes the acidic politics surrounding the Voting Rights Act like last year’s exchange between Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., and Lewis.
Broun offered an amendment cutting all funding for the enforcement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Lewis came to the floor and said it was “hard and difficult and almost unbelievable” that Broun would do so.
“People died for the right to vote — friends of mine, colleagues of mine,” Lewis thundered.
Broun apologized and withdrew the amendment.
House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., who will be a key figure in any House rewrite, said last week that his committee will hold a hearing in July to examine the implications of the Supreme Court ruling. He emphasized the parts of the law that remain on the books in a statement after the decision.
“This decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which remains in place,” he noted.
But the ruling is already having real-world implications.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Texas implemented a voter photo ID law that was previously blocked by a federal court and Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the state's redistricting plan, which had been struck down repeatedly by the courts.
On the Democratic side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that her caucus “and some Republicans” immediately started talking about “what we can do in response to the court’s action.”
Pelosi also said she asked Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina to spearhead the effort on the Democratic side.
According to a senior Democratic leadership aide, Democrats have not yet crystallized behind a unified strategy, but they plan to hold a meeting when members return from the July Fourth recess.
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.