WASHINGTON – It was hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough, a bill to repair the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court weakened key components of the landmark civil rights legislation last year.
“We have hit the gold mine here,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the authors of the bill, confidently declared in January at the unveiling of the measure.
Now the ballyhoo over the compromise has dissipated. The bill, which its authors believed would pass Congress before November’s elections, sits in limbo in both the Republican-run House of Representatives and Democratic-controlled Senate, mired in distrust and disagreement between and within the political parties.
“I think the effort to change the court ruling will die,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats and civil rights groups blame Republicans and say it’s up to the House to move. Dozens of House Republicans who supported a 2006 extension of the Voting Rights Act won’t say whether they support the bill, and Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, will not say whether he’ll hold a hearing on it.
At the same time, dozens of Democrats who voted for the same extension in 2006 also have not signed on as cosponsors. And President Obama hasn’t made passage of an amended Voting Rights Act a priority, though he urged Congress in April “to honor those who gave their lives so that others could exercise their rights and update the Voting Rights Act.”
Goodlatte, who voted for a 25-year extension of the act in 2006, said he supports protecting voting rights and would “carefully consider” legislation addressing the issue.
Six months after its unveiling, the House bill has only 22 cosponsors — 14 Democrats and eight Republicans. The level of support thus far pales in comparison to the 2006 legislation, which was passed with 197 Democrats and 192 Republicans voting yes.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he will hold a hearing this month to highlight the need for action in response to what he called the Supreme Court’s “disastrous” ruling. However, only two Senate Democrats have signed on as cosponsors.
In its 5-4 ruling in June 2013, the Supreme Court knocked out part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act but invited Congress to revisit it, saying that the law needs updating to account for how times have changed.
The court struck down a requirement that nine states and parts of six others obtain Justice Department approval before making election changes that might disproportionately affect minority voting.
The justices said that Congress needed to set a new formula for determining which jurisdictions would require department preclearance for everything from voter identification requirements to how many voting machines are allotted to minority precincts.
The response was the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.
Even if passed, the bill likely would have little impact on this year’s elections for control of Congress. It would cover only election changes adopted at least 61 days after its enactment, so it wouldn’t affect anything already in place.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, said “there’s a dispute within the party,” because some Republicans feel any fix should apply to all 50 states.
House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., who supports the compromise bill, said it “makes some people on the Republican side uneasy, and it certainly makes a lot of people on the Democratic side uneasy.”