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House to Move Voting Rights

Hoping to squelch a potentially damaging political rumor and sow goodwill in the black community, House GOP leaders are pushing to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act two years before the current extension expires.

Republicans hope to renew the measure this year, following suggestions by some prominent Democrats that the GOP might somehow water the bill down or let it expire in 2007.

“We think it’s a priority to address this issue immediately to take these rumors off the table because rumors eventually perpetuate themselves into perceptual fact, and that needs to stop as soon as possible,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) mentioned his desire to take up the issue during a floor speech before the July Fourth recess. After listing other pending measures such as the highway and energy bills, Hastert said, “We also plan to take up the PATRIOT Act, reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and the taking of people’s private property by the government.”

Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has not yet scheduled any hearings on the topic, and the committee already has its hands full dealing with the renewal of the PATRIOT Act and other issues.

But Sensenbrenner does intend to address the VRA extension soon, a point he was expected to make in a speech to the NAACP on Sunday.

“Chairman Sensenbrenner soon will be introducing legislation extending the Voting Rights Act for 25 years,” said Judiciary spokesman Jeff Lungren, pointing out that Sensenbrenner took the lead role for House Republicans in extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982.

Lungren said Friday that Sensenbrenner in his NAACP speech would “urge a bipartisan approach to civil rights issues ranging from the Voting Rights Act extension to legislation addressing the Supreme Court’s decision endorsing the taking of citizens’ private property by the government for private use.”

While Hastert, Sensenbrenner and other House Republicans are determined to pass a VRA extension through their chamber this year, the prospects for getting a measure onto the increasingly-packed Senate schedule are less clear.

And while the VRA is not due to expire for two more years, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and some other critics have already begun suggesting that Republicans do not want to extend the measure at all.

“I think it’s hypocritical for the Republicans to pretend to reach out to the African-American community unless they say they are going to reauthorize what gave the African-American community political power,” Dean told the Chicago Tribune in June. “I’d love to have the president say whether he’s going to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.”

Dean went on to challenge Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, saying, “The chairman of the Republican Party, as you know, has made a big deal about attracting African-American voters. And this is a litmus test. If you aren’t going to support the extension of the Voting Rights Act, I don’t know what right you have to go to a black church and show your face.”

Republicans are planning to push forward with reauthorization two years early in order to put such criticisms to rest and to make the point that they are taking action while Democrats are simply playing politics.

“The genesis of Howard Dean’s concern isn’t voter suppression or intimidation,” said RNC spokesman Brian Jones. “It’s the fact that the Republican Party is making serious inroads into the African-American community.”

Informed of the House GOP’s plan to move an extension this year, the DNC was happy to take credit for driving its opponents into action.

“I’m gratified to see that in response to what the governor has said that they’re considering actually doing something about it,” said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.

On Capitol Hill, the Congressional Black Caucus has been skeptical of the GOP’s commitment to reauthorizing the bill, particularly after the group had a meeting with President Bush at the White House. Following the meeting, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) said he had asked Bush about extending the VRA and Bush seemed to have no idea what he was talking about.

For now, the CBC and other House Democrats are likely to take a wait-and-see approach to the GOP’s accelerated timetable.

“What does reauthorization mean?” asked a CBC aide. “Are we going to delete provisions? Are we going to strengthen it? … Are they ensuring that every eligible American who wants to vote can vote unimpeded? That’s what’s important.”

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