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GOP Leader Cracks Door, Slightly, on Voting Rights Act

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., makes his way to the House floor through the media pack, who were waiting for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
McCarthy, R-Calif., thinks it’s time for an “overall review” of the VRA (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last year, House Democrats saw ex-Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a possible (if ultimately disappointing) ally in the fight to rewrite the Voting Rights Act for the 21st century.

On Tuesday, Cantor’s leadership successor, Kevin McCarthy, might have revealed himself as another important potential friend to the effort.

The California Republican echoed at a pen-and-pad briefing what fellow GOP lawmakers have said before: Any revision of the landmark 1965 law has to start in the Judiciary Committee — a disappointing answer for advocates who know Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is disinclined to tackle the matter.

But McCarthy later said he thinks the time has come for an “overall review.”

“On a personal level, I’d like to see the debate go forward,” he said. “I’d like to see [us] have the debate in committee. I think everything, when it’s first written and where the world is today, has changed. So just as most of our bills, how do you modernize?

“An overall review, I think, it’s the right time to do it,” McCarthy continued. “What the outcome can be, I don’t prejudge.”

McCarthy’s comments came after he was asked what he thought of House Democrats’ calls for Congress to take up legislation in response to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that dismantled the VRA’s core enforcement provision.

While noncommittal, McCarthy’s remarks are the most optimistic comments on the VRA from any member of House GOP leadership since Cantor’s primary defeat in June 2014.

Before his exit from Congress, Democratic colleagues were skeptical about Cantor, but held out hope for the Virginia Republican’s support, coming on the heels of a 2013 pilgrimage to Selma, Ala., with civil rights icon and Georgia Democrat John Lewis, was sincere.

Like Cantor, McCarthy is a veteran of the Selma experience, having participated earlier this year on the annual walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the infamous bloody clash between police and peaceful protestors that led to enactment of the first iteration of the VRA. The Californian also considers Lewis a close friend.

McCarthy could be the focus of the Democrats’ challenge for Republicans to take up a VRA rewrite, seizing on the the law’s 50th anniversary next month and exploiting Republican anxiety over the political fallout for blocking votes on amendments to bar display of the Confederate flag on public grounds — a sensitive issue in the wake of a racially motivated shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C.

At a news conference Thursday, as the House wrapped up the week’s legislative business and members were heading home, Democrats offered Republicans a deal: Allow a House vote on a VRA fix and Democrats would stop adding Confederate flag bans to spending bills to embarrass the GOP.

Two weeks ago, Republican leaders calculated the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment appropriations bill couldn’t pass if it included language to ban Confederate flags at federal cemeteries, language that had been adopted earlier by voice vote.

They pushed the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., to offer an eleventh-hour amendment — first reported on July 8 by CQ Roll Call — to undo the flag ban. The ensuing uproar forced leadership to pull the whole measure and cancel further debate on other appropriations bills.

“Because of our reaction, the speaker pulled the entire piece of legislation from the floor, and I have read since that the appropriations process has been suspended until such time as we can resolve this issue,” said Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., at the news conference. “Well, I’m here to say to you that members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the full Democratic Caucus are willing to sit down with the speaker and work out a way for us to … work out an appropriate addressing of the amendments to the Voting Rights Act.”

“There has been an opportunity for the Republican majority not just to send a condolence card or show up at a service but to translate that into action,” added Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the first black Democratic woman to be elected to represent the state of Alabama. “We are now segueing from the conversation about the flag to a conversation about voting rights.”

At his Tuesday briefing, McCarthy said he was unfamiliar with Democrats’ offer and seemed uninterested in discussing a quid pro quo in connection with the Confederate flag.

“When did they do that?” McCarthy asked. “You’re telling me something nobody’s told me. I don’t know who they made that offer to? Each other?”

As far as McCarthy’s concerned, the decision to postpone resuming the House appropriations season had nothing to do with the flag but Democrats’ own refusal to support spending bills at sequester levels.

“It’s difficult when you try to work with the other side, it’s their intention not to let the appropriations process work,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., also suggested a fundamental disagreement about sequestration was at the heart of the standoff, though he wouldn’t let Republicans off the hook on the flag.

“The appropriations process largely is in trouble because the Republicans are divided on [sequestration],” Hoyer said at his Tuesday pen-and-pad, “and their excuse for not bringing up a bill because we might offer an amendment on the display, sale or imprimatur of the federal government on the Confederate battle flag is just indicative they don’t want their members to vote on it. … I think they’re making excuses for why the appropriations process is not working.”

Meanwhile, Calvert wishes none of this had ever happened.

“I regret the whole thing,” he told CQ Roll Call last week, leaving it at that.

Correction 6:33 p.m.

An earlier version of this post misstated Sewell’s place in the delegation.

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