Updated 6:09 p.m.:
The question of how Congress might respond to the Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Rights Act was perhaps best reflected Tuesday in how congressional leaders responded.
Democrats quickly denounced the decision, saying it will roll back protections still needed across the country – and perhaps in some states currently not covered by the law. Republicans said little, while some agreed with the court’s majority opinion that the country has changed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that the decision to roll back provisions of the law allowing special federal oversight of certain states made Tuesday “a dark day for the Supreme Court.”
“But,” Reid added, “it's been pretty cloudy over there for quite some time now.”
Moments before, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had told the same pack of reporters that he couldn't say much, because he hadn't read the case.
“My state is not covered by the Voting Rights Act,” McConnell said, adding later that “I would say I do think America is very different today from what it was in the 1960s.”
McConnell then turned to the other Republican senators standing with him to see if anyone else wanted to weigh in. They all stayed silent.
Over in the House, aides to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) referred reporters to the chairman of the committees on House Administration and Judiciary, who they said led the “committees of jurisdiction.” Otherwise, they said, Boehner had no comment.
Ditto House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
But House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) did weigh in, recalling a trip this year to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 1956 "Bloody Sunday" march as "profound." During the trip, Cantor walked with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was severely injured during the 1956 march.
"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.
Lewis remains a revered figure in the House for his work on civil rights, as Cantor's statement suggested.
On Tuesday Lewis said he was sitting in his office when he first heard about the ruling.
“It’s painful that five learned men would come to such a conclusion,” he said, adding that the court ruling not only stripped away protections still needed in several states, but also ignored the modern-day realities of racism.
“We cannot sweep the issue of race under some rug in some dark corner and try to deny that it doesn’t exist. We’re not there yet – we’re not a colorblind society,” he told reporters. “Some people want to say that the election of President Barack Obama is a fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. I say no, it’s a down payment. We are not there yet. Racism is still deeply embedded in every corner and of every fiber of our society.”
Lewis joined other members of the Congressional Black Caucus at a marathon news conference to denounce the court ruling. CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) called it “a day that will go down in the history of this country as one of the worst days for civil rights and civil discourse.”
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), an assistant minority whip and the most senior black lawmaker in the House, also criticized the ruling and suggested that history could soon repeat itself.
Remember, he said, that black politicians were elected in waves to state legislatures across the South just a few years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That progress, Clyburn suggested, could have led the Supreme Court to similarly conclude that the nation’s problems with racism had changed.
Within a few years, he noted, the high court upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate, but equal” — and most of those black legislators were voted out of office soon after.
“I can envision that the beginning of the next legislative session, a lot of states – including my home state – will be taking a look and probably will be having some redistricting, not just of congressional seats but also of legislative seats,” Clyburn warned.
Fudge, Clyburn and others agreed that the Voting Rights Act might in fact need some changes — but only to expand its oversight of states to include Ohio and Pennsylvania, which attempted to enact new voting eligibility requirements that would have made it more difficult for minority voters to vote in last year's presidential election.
How the House might respond to the court ruling is unclear, but prospects appear more certain in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said Tuesday that his panel, which has struggled this year to draft new gun-control and immigration laws, would hold hearings next month to explore how to come up with a new formula to identify which states should be covered.
Leahy called the ruling “stunning,” saying it would “allow further discrimination of voters.” But he dismissed suggestions that Democrats should have moved sooner to change the law and address the court’s concerns in 2009 when they controlled both chambers of Congress.
“If the Supreme Court expresses reservations, I don’t think the Congress should immediately jump and say, oh, we know what we’re going to do and pass a law accordingly,” he said. “That kind of backs a little bit away from the idea of separation of powers.”
“But with this being such a stunning reversal again — five justices who decided they know a lot better than the hundreds of others who’ve worked on this — I think we then come back with an answer,” he said.
Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost
This item has been updated to include a statement from Cantor.