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House Moving on VRA

With a series of oversight hearings on the Voting Rights Act now under way in the House Judiciary Committee, the panel’s leadership expects deliberations on renewal of the legislation to begin early in the second session of the 109th Congress.

“We could be moving to do it before the expiration of the 109th Congress,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the panels’ ranking member, who added: “Sooner is better on all legislation.”

In fact, Conyers suggested that the reauthorization bill could move as early as December, should Congress return to Capitol Hill after the Thanksgiving recess.

But an aide to Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said last week that a series of oversight hearings that began Tuesday could continue into January, and that lawmakers aren’t expected to take up the text of the reauthorization legislation until those meetings are complete.

Although those sections of the Voting Rights Act now under review aren’t scheduled to expire until 2007, House Republicans announced earlier this year that they would move ahead on the reauthorization, in part to put to rest suggestions that the GOP could simply allow the bill to expire.

Additionally, Sensenbrenner, who took on a similar role for House Republicans in extending the act in 1982, wanted to complete work on the legislation before he is term-limited out of his chairmanship at the conclusion of the 109th Congress.

“The chairman really wanted to get out in front of this,” said Judiciary spokesman Jeff Lungren.

House Democrats, including Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), himself an icon of the civil rights movement, have praised that decision, noting in part that it will give time to dispel misinformation about the reauthorization.

“By holding the hearings now, I think we have plenty of time to renew and reauthorize,” Lewis said Monday.

“I think it’s important because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, on the Internet and some of the African-American media … [that] minorities are going to lose their right to vote,” he said.

In fact, several years ago those rumors prompted the Justice Department to issue a memorandum. The April 1998 document noted that voting rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, and outlined the additional provisions contained in the VRA.

“By acting now I think we can put aside, cast away some of the bad information and rumors,” Lewis added.

While various provisions in the act are set to expire — including Section 203, dubbed the “language provision,” which provides for assistance to non-English speakers or alternate language ballots, as well as portions that provide for federal election examiners to discourage intimidation of minority voters — several House lawmakers said debate is expected to focus heavily on Section 5. That’s the “pre-clearance” provision requiring states with a verified history of discrimination to receive federal approval before changing election practices.

“Section 5 is obviously the key element that has to be reviewed and extended,” said Conyers, who added he believes it will be critical not to overload the legislation with “extraneous material that’s not already on it,” such as suggested provisions protecting the voting rights of former convicts.

Lawmakers also are expected to discuss the possibility of expanding Section 5 to apply nationwide, rather than to selected states with documented histories of discrimination.

Democrats, including Lewis, oppose such an expansion, asserting that it could weaken the act and open it to constitutional challenges.

“That would be the death of that section,” Lewis said. “In the final analysis, there will be a consensus that we should not tamper with the real essence of the act. It’s been very, very effective for the past 40 years.

“We needed it in ’65, and we still need it in ’05.”

Still, because Congress has only begun its review process, it remains difficult to predict where major debates could arise.

“We’re so early into the process that [obstacles] will become more evident and clear as the process moves along,” said LaShawn Warren, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the meantime, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who sits on Specter’s panel, are continuing work on a bipartisan reauthorization bill.

Although the pair had hoped to introduce the legislation following the Labor Day recess, the committee’s schedule, including confirmation hearings for now-Chief Justice John Roberts, have delayed that effort, a Kennedy spokeswoman noted.