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Lawmakers Push Longshot Bid to Rewrite Voting Rights Act

Sensenbrenner seeks more Republican support for a revived Voting Rights Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner fell short in his 2014 efforts to convince GOP leadership to take up his Voting Rights Amendment Act, but the Wisconsin Republican is ready to take another stab at passing a rewrite of the historic law.  

But there's little indication this year will be any different.  

For Sensenbrenner and his fellow co-sponsors of the legislation introduced Wednesday, many of the same obstacles remain — along with a few new ones.  

On the surface, it would seem the time has never been better — nor the political pressures greater — for the Republican-controlled House to take action.  

The VRA's 50th anniversary this summer has the landmark civil rights legislation back in the spotlight almost two years after the Supreme Court, challenging lawmakers to update the law for the 21st century, struck down the enforcement section of the act.  

Sensenbrenner chose to drop his bill on the same day the House considered legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to the "foot soldiers" of 1965's bloody civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.  

Republicans are eager to rebrand themselves as an inclusive and compassionate party, a "big tent" ahead of the 2016 elections, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., is still doing damage control after revelations he took a meeting with a white supremacist group in 2002. But Sensenbrenner and his allies have a huge challenge ahead in mobilizing the kind of support necessary to advance their legislation.  

Though he is a respected member of the House Republican Conference and was Judiciary chairman during passage of the last VRA rewrite in 2006, Sensenbrenner no longer has the kind of clout critical to moving the measure through the legislative pipeline.  

"We need the Republican leadership to enthusiastically support the enforcement of Section 5, and they have the ability to do it," Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., told CQ Roll Call Wednesday. "The Republican leadership, if they really want to attract minority voters into the Republican Party, they have to demonstrate that they understand that the right to vote is precious."  

In 2014, advocates such as Butterfield thought they might have then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on their side. Early on, he was seen as the key sympathetic House Republican  who could move the bill if he wanted. Ultimately, no one knew Cantor's long game, but he never got a chance to prove his critics wrong : He lost his primary over the summer and resigned shortly thereafter.  

Butterfield said he and others have urged Scalise to take on Cantor's mantle as a champion of a VRA fix, even calling for the Louisiana Republican to sign on as a co-sponsor. Scalise has so far been noncommittal, and his office declined to comment on his current thinking.  

During floor debate Wednesday, Michigan Republican Bill Huizenga told Democrats not to "politicize" the nonpartisan Congressional Gold Medal measure by bringing up the Sensenbrenner bill.  

"Let's not turn this ... into a debate that would, frankly, be held in the Judiciary Committee rather than on the House floor," he said.  

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., one of just four original GOP co-sponsors of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 — he's joined by fellow Pennsylvanian Michael G. Fitzpatrick and Chris Gibson of New York  — agreed it was the job of members on the Judiciary panel to do the "heavy lifting."  

But Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., after dodging the question for months, finally conceded at a reporters' breakfast in January he was not inclined to move any rewrite of the VRA through his committee, arguing that existing election laws are sufficient.  

Sensenbrenner's bill, identical to last year's version, directly responds to the Supreme Court's challenge to Congress back in June 2013: Rewrite the VRA's so-called pre-clearance formula for the 21st century.  

That core enforcement provision set criteria for states with histories of racial discrimination at the polls. The Supreme Court struck down that requirement on the grounds it was outdated, and huge swaths of Republicans rejoiced that their home states had finally been freed from stigma of racism.  

While those same House lawmakers were eager to praise the heroes of the Civil Rights era Wednesday and rally behind legislation to honor them, they are reluctant to consider Sensenbrenner's proposal to reinstate the pre-clearance formula, even though it only would apply to Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. (Louisiana's inclusion in that list would complicate Scalise's ability to support the bill.)  

There are plenty of Democrats, including those in the CBC, who think the Sensenbrenner bill doesn't go far enough.  

“I’m catching hell from the left,” Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., told CQ Roll last year. “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.”  

Democrats who support the proposed fix, as they did in 2014, have to make a case to skeptics — in their caucus and their communities — that Sensenbrenner's bill would be better than nothing.  

The co-sponsor list could go a long way in terms of being persuasive. The lead Democratic co-sponsor is Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the longest-serving member of the House.  

It includes Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., one of the would-be recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal for leading the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to be greeted by a mob of violent law enforcement officers.  

“John Lewis, who was there, has been acclaimed by all of us [as] a national treasure and national hero,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during Wednesday’s floor debate. She said Lewis and other fighters of the era should be honored not only with “good words”  but with action — such as a VRA rewrite.  

Correction: 6:45 p.m. A previous version of this story misstated when the 50th anniversary of the VRA will occur.  

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