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Two Weeks on, Hill’s Post-Charleston Agenda Has All but Disappeared

Debate over Confederate imagery abounds, but not so much on guns and voting rights. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Debate over Confederate imagery abounds, but not so much on guns and voting rights. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The last of the funerals for the Emanuel Nine is Tuesday, and momentum for removing Confederate symbols from the public square has reached a plateau. But what about tangible federal policy changes in reaction to the Charleston shootings?

Only a week ago, it seemed the deaths of nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church, at the hand of a white supremacist wielding a .45 semiautomatic, would at a minimum jumpstart stalled discussions about gun control and civil rights legislation.

That’s now proving to be a naive expectation. Unless a wellspring of constituent demand unexpectedly bubbles up in conservative parts of the country this July 4 recess week, the Republicans who run this Congress aren’t going to touch either issue.

Photos of Dylann Roof waving the Confederate battle flag, which accompanied his online race war manifesto, were enough to fuel a remarkably rapid consensus that the banner no longer merits a place of honor — its meaning as a symbol of racial oppression having become palpably more noxious than its meaning as a symbol of regional pride.

But photos of Roof brandishing his Glock semiautomatic, legally purchased at a firearms retailer with his 21st birthday money and allegedly used for murdering nine people on June 17 — have done nothing perceptible to help those on the Hill who would expand background checks. And his 2,500-word screed — defending segregation as a way to “protect us from having to interact with them” and “from being brought down to their level” — has not been cited by anyone in the GOP as a reason for legislation to bolster the rights of African-Americans.

In eulogizing the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he and eight others were shot dead during a Bible study, President Barack Obama last week urged mourners to “search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote” and lamented that, “for too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.”

He’s destined to remain disappointed on both fronts.

The Capitol has only become more dominated by Second Amendment purists since the last election, conducted a year after the most intense push in 15 years to restrict firearms was stopped in the Senate. And conservative Southerners have only gained more influence on the Hill since that midterm, conducted a year after the Supreme Court struck down as outdated a central provision of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2013, two senators who had been favorites of the National Rifle Association, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey, broke publicly with the gun lobby to propose legislation requiring background checks on almost all would-be buyers before a commercial gun sale. They did so after a 20-year-old man with a history of mental illness appeared to alter the balance of power in the gun control debate by killing 20 youngsters and six staff members at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

While 55 senators backed their proposal, that was five short of the supermajority required, and since the 2014 election six of the Democrats in that majority have been replaced by Republicans with “A” ratings from the NRA. Gun control advocates, in contrast, have not netted any additional supporters, so it would appear a vote now on the same amendment would result in a straightforward 49-51 rejection.

Still, Manchin and Toomey said last week the Charleston shootings have prompted them to begin searching for a way to rejoin the issue, which to have any chance at all would presumably require a significant weakening of their bill. Manchin told the Washington Post he might seek to focus anew on keeping guns from the mentally ill, while Toomey suggested he’s willing to settle for almost any modest policy shift addressing gun violence that could muster 60 votes.

Toomey’s interest in reviving his crusade makes some political sense, because it allows him to stretch beyond his ideological comfort zone as a solidly conservative Republican while running for a second term in a state that’s voted Democratic in six consecutive presidential contests.

There is almost no place, by contrast, where Republicans might see it in their political self-interest to think outside the partisan box on the Voting Rights Act.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the formula for deciding which parts of the country had to get advance federal approval for any changes to their election laws. The effect was to free all of nine states, and parts of more than a dozen others, from this “preclearance” requirement. The court said the formula, last altered in 1975, was unconstitutionally outdated and effectively urged Congress to come up with a new one reflecting the current state of racial bias in voting rules.

But doing so could theoretically make it easier for African-Americans to get elected, and that might loosen the GOP’s grip on the House. (The Republican majority there is now anchored in the South. The party holds 69 seats, or 28 percent of its total, in the states where preclearance used to be required; it held just 20 seats in those states when the formula was written 40 years ago.)

Only one GOP member from those states, Barbara Comstock of northern Virginia, is currently viewed as vulnerable in 2016. And her district is 7 percent black, so there’s little obvious incentive for her to get out front on this issue. More consequentially, the adjacent Shenandoah Valley district of House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (which is 11 percent African-American) has been largely free of any voting discrimination for 10 years, according to the Justice Department, one explanation for why he’s declared he has no plans for his committee to even hold a hearing on changes to the voting law. (He reiterated that position last week, when civil rights groups brought 300 protesters to Goodlatte’s office in Roanoke.)

“The scars and stains of division are still so deeply embedded in American society,” Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, leader of a group of Democrats proposing a voting rights bill, said during a Faith and Politics Institute panel discussion in the Capitol last week. So no one should expect much as a consequence of the Charleston shootings.

“Maybe it will move us a little closer or create a bit more sense of urgency,” he said, “but we are not yet close to the beloved community.”


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