Does Cantor’s loss change the outlook for a voting rights bill?


File: Supporters of the Voting Rights Act learn the justices' rulings outside the U.S. Supreme Court building. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Within moments of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) stunning primary loss earlier this month, political observers began analysis of what, if any, impact it would have on the push for a large-scale overhaul of the country's immigration laws.

The chances of a vote on comprehensive immigration reform this year, many concluded, were dead. But the ouster of Cantor, the number two in the GOP House leadership, also upended the calibration for Democrats who have been pushing a bill meant to counter the Supreme Court decision last year that halted several major provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Shelby v. Holder decision last year stalled the requirement that nine states -- each with histories of racially discriminatory actions to keep minorities from voting -- must submit any change to voting procedures to the Department of Justice.

The decision ruled that the determination of which states must abide by the "pre-clearance provision" was unconstitutional, which meant Congress must pass new legislation before it can be enforced again.

Efforts to craft a measure had hinged largely on Cantor's tacit support, with Democrats betting on him to eventually come out in support of the legislation and help it through the GOP-controlled House.

"Mr. Cantor, when we met with him, was interested. He was very interested," said Lorraine Miller, the interim president and CEO of the NAACP. "I think he had a will to do it."

While Cantor had never commented publicly on several proposed pieces of legislation that would re-write the Section 5 requirements  tossed by the Supreme Court, proponents say that in private conversations he had been open to the idea and pointed to a statement he released on the day of the court decision.

Referring to his participation in the annual trip led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to the sites of several landmark Civil Rights moments, Cantor said at the time that he hoped Congress could work to ensure the ruling had no adverse effects.

"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," Cantor said at the time.

In the days following Cantor's loss, several left-leaning publications declared that it was a major setback for the chances of a voting rights bill making it to the House floor this year.

"Eric Cantor's loss... is terrible news for voting rights," declared the opening sentence of a Mother Jones article published the day after Cantor's loss. The sub-headline on that piece screamed: "Voting rights could be doomed." 

But the congressional Democrats on the front lines of the fight to pass new voting rights legislation have, if anything, have been even more insistent in recent days that they will succeed in passing legislation, even if it takes more time than they'd like.

"I don't think it changes anything," said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Washington Post last week. "Let's be honest, he hadn't moved it, he hadn't had any intention of moving it. I actually think that we have a better chance than we did before."

Meanwhile, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), co-authors of the pending legislation to rewrite the pre-clearance provision, told Buzzfeed earlier this month that it was too soon to diagnose whether Cantor's defeat would be a net positive or negative for their bill.

Some have argued that Cantor - now with nothing to lose - could make championing voting rights legislation his final major legislative action before he gives up his leadership post on July 31.

"I can think of no better way for Cantor to end his tenure as House Majority Leader than for him to forge a consensus of the majority to preserve and protect the Voting Rights Act so all Americans will continue to have unfettered access to the ballot box—regardless of their skin color or ethnicity," wrote Republican strategist Ron Christie, a former adviser for President George W. Bush, in an op-ed for the Daily Beast last week. "I believe the outgoing majority leader from a Southern state could move the country forward by ensuring the House fulfills its obligation as the People’s House to act responsibly to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act."

But if Cantor does not publicly and forcefully champion the proposed voting rights legislation, Democrats say they will turn to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) -- who last week was elected as the next GOP House majority leader -- in hopes that he may be willing to help shepherd such a bill.

"Mr. McCarthy, at my invitation, joined us in the pilgrimage in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters at his weekly availability last week. "And although I don't have a quote from him as we have from Mr. Cantor, I am hopeful that he, like Mr. Cantor, will share the view that we ought to pass the voting rights response to the Shelby Supreme Court case which undermines protection for voters against discrimination."

McCarthy, wary of Cantor's fate and eager to unite an at-times splintered House GOP caucus is expected to work hard to appease the most conservative members of the GOP House. Yet House Democrats have been, at least publicly, cautiously optimistic about the installation of McCarthy, who many say they like personally and respect as a legislator.

"I like Mr. McCarthy," said Miller, of the NAACP, adding that she hopes that the incoming majority leader will be open to helping shepherd voting rights legislation through the House. "He's a great guy. But, either way, we will prevail."

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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