When the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to gut the Voting Rights Act, they said, in so many words, Congress, please rework the Act in a way that passes muster. To which, Sen. Schumer basically said, Yeah, good luck with that! As long as Democrats need 60 votes in the Senate and Republicans control the House, pre-clearance is done. And yet, I’m not so sure that’s how this plays out. Or at least not so simply.Today, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) came forward and said: Well, no, actually, discrimination still exists. We need the Voting Rights Act. Here’s a portion of his statement out today …
“The Voting Rights Act is vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process. Section 5 of the Act was a bipartisan effort to rectify past injustices and ensure minorities’ ability to participate in elections, but the threat of discrimination still exists. I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling, but my colleagues and I will work in a bipartisan fashion to update Section 4 to ensure Section 5 can be properly implemented to protect voting rights, especially for minorities. This is going to take time and will require members from both sides of the aisle to put partisan politics aside and ensure Americans’ most sacred right is protected.”
Sensenbrenner is arguably a special case because he was a key player in reauthorizing the VRA in 1982 and 2006. In his case, I think we should assume this is a sincere statement of belief.
But look too at what Eric Cantor said in a statement provided to TPM.
“My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all. 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.”
I don’t know what’s in Cantor’s heart on this issue. But let’s assume, as a hypothetical, a maximally cynical interpretation. In that case, at a minimum, I think we can infer a few things pretty clearly. The most important of which is that Cantor does not want the GOP to own this decision. This is the Court’s thing. Not ours. Who’ll join me in a Kumbaya?
To be clear, I’m genuinely not saying Cantor’s insincere on this. We can’t know what’s in people’s hearts. What’s more instructive and what we can pin down more clearly is how they see their and their party’s political interests playing out. And on that front, I think Cantor’s remarks are quite instructive.
Let’s look at some numbers. The VRA was last reauthorized by a GOP-controlled Congress in 2006 by overwhelming majorities. It passed the Senate 98-0. It passed the House 390-33. Those numbers are bipartisan, overwhelming and verging on unanimous.
What does this tell us? Certainly not that we’re going to see a similar roll call. Don’t expect consistency from politicians of either party. And one of my colleagues rightly notes that it’s one thing to again reauthorize a hallmark piece of legislation that’s been reupped repeatedly since 1965 and another to actually do something new. But it does put quite a number of current members on record just 7 years ago saying they supported the bill and believed it was constitutional – not an insignificant point.
Now, let me say that at the end of the day, I think Schumer is probably right. But only probably. There’s a lot of terrain between here and there and Cantor’s and other Republicans’ comments tell me that they realize it’s almost all painful ground for the GOP.
Let’s walk through this.
Seven years ago the VRA passed the Senate with 98 votes. As we’ve seen from the immigration debate Senate Republicans are a good deal more open-minded shall we say on these issues and much more attuned to the party’s need to get out of under the label of “party of white people.” Remember, senators don’t get to gerrymander their seats. I think there’s a very decent chance Democrats could get a reasonably good bill out of the Senate. I suspect there are a non-trivial number of senators who simply believe the VRA is important and a larger number who see that voting against it is toxic politics. Also, is Mitch McConnell going to whip a filibuster on this issue? I doubt it. Too fraught with bad history and bad politics.
Of course, maybe I’m wrong. But how many Republicans want to vote against “the Voting Rights Bill” in the Senate. I think very few. So maybe it dies there. But at the cost of a lot of pain for the GOP. I’m not even sure they’d need 60 votes. And I suspect they’d get a lot more.
So now we have “the Voting Rights Bill” passed out of the Senate and lands over at the House. Does Boehner invoke the Hastert Rule and refuse to bring it to a vote because a majority of his caucus doesn’t support it? Quite possible. But again, toxic politics.
I strongly suspect that you’d have a lot of GOP elites – and by that I just mean professional Republicans at the national level who are concerned about winning national elections – really not liking that outcome. And I also suspect there’d be a non-trivial number of Republican representatives who’d be saying, hey I don’t want to be part of this, for a mix of political reasons and reasons of simple belief. At the same time you’re going to have a lot of members from the South who are going to have a hard time putting their state legislatures back under the review of the dread ‘Obama Regime Justice Department.’ Taken together it puts the sectional divisions within the GOP under real pressure.
One thing I’m certain of is that it’s a situation the GOP really really wants to avoid.
So to come back to the beginning, I’m not saying this or the next Congress will be able to resurrect section 4 of the VRA. On balance, I figure it doesn’t happen. But if the attempt is made, every step along the way is going to be acutely painful for the GOP.