Can this ‘do-nothing’ Congress pass a new Voting Rights Act?

By Perry Bacon, Jr. 

ludes 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.

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