A bipartisan group that includes Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) last week unveiled legislation that would rewrite the Voting Rights Act after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of it last year.
The bill would require four states to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for any changes to their voting laws, creates a new formula to determine if states other than those four should also be required to “pre-clear” their voting provisions and in a nod to conservatives, generally exempts “voter ID” laws from federal scrutiny.
Can this actually be passed in a Congress divided by partisanship on nearly every issue? Here’s a closer look:
Why it may pass:
1. Defending the voting rights of minorities, at least in today’s politics, is generally an issue promoted more by Democrats than Republicans. But this new VRA push has an official Republican sponsor, Sensenbrenner. And according to The Hill, GOP lawmakers from Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin have also already endorsed the bill.
Four of the 233 House Republicans (and zero of the 45 Republicans in the Senate) so far embracing the legislation is hardly a groundswell. But the support of conservatives like Sensenbrenner and Alabama’s Spencer Bachus suggests this issue could avoid the partisan lines that result in most bills in today’s Congress being dead from almost the moment they are written.
2. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, is a potential supporter of this legislation, according to sources.
Cantor, to be sure, is not going to back a bill that is doomed for failure, as he has his eye on eventually becoming House Speaker.But he, more than other party leaders, speaks often about finding ways for Republicans to start attracting minority voters. And Cantor went to Alabama last year for the annual event organized by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in which members of Congress from both parties visit key sites of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s , such as Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. When the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 last year, Cantor was one of a handful of Republicans who issued a statement saying Congress should consider legislation to address the court’s concerns.
If some bloc of Republicans, but not a majority, support this bill, Cantor could ensure it gets a vote on the House floor, where it would likely pass with Democratic votes.
3. Republicans don’t hold great hopes of winning the black vote anytime soon. But the party would like to avoid another drubbing among minority voters overall. And blocking the VRA and refusing to move forward on immigration reform in the same year would allow Democrats to again cast the GOP as a party dominated by white men.
4. This new version of the Voting Rights Act makes two key concessions to Republicans. First, it explicitly says that voter ID laws aren’t counted as evidence of a state having discriminatory voting practices That is key; many House Republicans live in states that have passed voter ID laws and have expressed support for them.
Secondly, the law narrows from all or parts of 15 states to four (Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) the places which must get their voting laws approved by DOJ. It will be easier to get Republican lawmakers from states like Alabama and South Carolina to back a law that does not specifically suggest their state has a history of discriminating against minority voters.
Why it may not pass:
1. It’s easy to see conservatives outside of Congress lining up against this bill, particularly powerful outside groups like Heritage Action and talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and pushing Republican members to oppose it. That’s already happening, in fact.
“A very bad voting rights bill is about to be introduced in Congress,” wrote Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in a piece published in the conservative National Review after the Leahy-Conyers-Sensenbrenner bill was introduced.
At the core of the VRA is allowing federal courts and officials to scrutinize and potentially block laws passed by states, a concept that goes against the small government ethos of many Tea Party conservatives. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Republican members of Congress from Texas are also likely to strongly oppose this bill, since it names Texas as one of the four states who should have their laws pre-cleared.
2. The Republican support for the VRA so far is very limited in number and clout. Sensenbrenner is a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and an influential member of Congress. At the same time, he’s not Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky,), who has been a key negotiator in deals reached between the White House and Congress the last several years. Sensenbrenner is also not Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), whose support of something is often considered by Tea Party members a sign that the provision is sufficiently conservative for them to back it as well.
3. Democrats don’t love this bill and are unlikely to support a version that gets more conservative through the legislative process. The exemption of Voter ID laws was a major concession by Leahy and Conyers. Drastically shrinking the number of states subject to pre-clearance was another.
If Republicans insist on weakening this provision further, some Democrats may decided it’s not worth getting behind.