A year after Supreme Court voting rights decision, Dems doubt they’ll get law update soon


Activists attend a Voting Rights Amendment Act rally in Capitol Hill June 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. The rally marked the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which held a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

For two days, the main theme on Capitol Hill, at least for Democrats, has been voting rights.

Dozens gathered in the rotunda on Tuesday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King and commemorate the Civil Rights Act. The Senate held a detailed hearing Wednesday morning about a proposal to update the Voting Rights Act, and congressional Democrats took the stage on the Capitol lawn in the afternoon to demanding they be given a vote on the issue.

But, in interviews during the last two weeks, many of the Democrats leading the push for new legislation to re-institute the "pre-clearance" provision struck from the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court last year acknowledge that -- as things stand currently -- there seems to be little chance of a House vote on it anytime this year.

"They're looking at preserving themselves and not looking at preserving the American dream," said Rep. Steve Cohen, (D-Tenn.), who said that he is not optimistic that House Republicans will allow a vote.

"I don't see some consciousness-raising action on the Republican side."

But that pessimism has not stopped Democrats from actively and vocally embarking on messaging campaigns on the issue.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) joined other speakers at the rally on the Capitol Hill lawn on Wednesday, promising to keep up the fight for the voting rights legislation.

Democrats as well as several voting rights groups are urging Congress to respond to last summer's Shelby v. Holder decision. The decision 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 Justice Department.

Some Democrats believe the final blow to their chances of reaching a deal to call the legislation up for a vote -- which would require the cooperation of the GOP House leadership -- came when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who they believe was an ally on this legislation, was defeated in his Republican primary earlier this month.

"I think Eric Cantor would have stepped forward," Cohen said. "I think his defeat makes it less likely that the Republican party will have that voice within their caucus."

But several of the Democrats who have worked on getting a vote on the bill have dismissed that outlook, arguing that despite being heralded as an ally Cantor had not, in fact, done anything to ease the pathway toward passing the voting rights legislation.

"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."

The idea has been floated that Cantor could, in one of his last acts as leader, bring the legislation to the floor for a vote, several House aides said this week that they have received no indication from Cantor that he is considering such action.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was noncommittal when asked last week about the prospects for the legislation moving forward.

"I think there are conversations going on about what ‑‑ what a renewal would look like, given the Court decision that came down last year," Boehner told reporters. "I think those conversations are going to continue."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), who Democrats hope to pressure into holding a hearing on the legislation, struck a similar tone with reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Thursday.

"We have said that we will examine carefully any legislation brought forward to address any changes made as a result of the Supreme Court decision. And I believe we should be protecting very strongly the rights of all Americans the right to vote," he said.

But he added later that "no decisions have been made about whether it is necessary or what that would be if it were found to be needed. "

Some Democrats have noted that, perhaps, the House GOP will be more willing to consider the legislation -- which they believe would pass if taken up for a vote -- after the midterm elections in November.

"As we get past the primaries, it could be a different story," said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif), who is chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. "So many Republicans are concerned about a challenge from their own party so they're proceeding very cautiously. But who knows? As the primaries are done and as we are at the farthest point away from the general election, we could get some action on this."

Asked if Cantor's pending departure as House majority leader will have any impact on the legislation, Chu responded: "I don't think that makes much difference."

But nevertheless, congressional Democrats have seized on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling to embark in a full-scale messaging campaign.

The rationale is that if they, along with a series of outside groups, drum up public sentiment, it may move House Republicans to support the legislation.

Fudge, Pelosi, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) all used their speeches at Tuesday's Congressional Gold Medal ceremony to call for the passage of the legislation.

"We must pass the bipartisan Voting Rights Act in this Congress," Pelosi declared.

But, with Congress set to begin July 4th recess and only a few dozen days remaining on the legislative calendar for the year, few House Democrats are expressing confidence that they'll be able to convince the GOP to bring the voting rights legislation up for a vote in 2014.

"Do I have confidence that we will?" Rep. James Clyburn, (D-S.C.), the House Democratic leadership's point person on the voting rights legislation, echoed back to a reporter when asked on Wednesday. "I'm sure that we should. We should."

Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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