Rep. Sensenbrenner: I hope Obama vetoes my Voting Rights Act fix

Rep John Lewis (D-GA) (L) listens as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Rep John Lewis (D-GA) (L) listens as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The key Republican sponsor of a major bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act recently said he hopes President Obama vetoes the measure—before backtracking when asked about the comments.

“I hope the president vetoes the bill,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin said at a recent town hall event, after being asked about the issue by conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe, who was posing as a constituent.

“You hope the president vetoes your bill?” O’Keefe asked.

“If the president vetoes—well, let me rephrase that – if the president vetoes this bill, he will lose an awful lot of the African-American support that he has.”

The exchange, which took place late February in Rubicon, Wisc., was filmed and posted online Wednesday by O’Keefe’s organization, Project Veritas. Other O’Keefe videos that caused a stir have turned out to be edited misleadingly. But the full video of the event, posted by Project Veritas, does not change the meaning of Sensenbrenner’s comments.

In a statement to msnbc, Sensensbrenner called the legislation "a priority," adding: "I am dedicated to getting it passed and have put my own political capital on the line to do so. The comment about a Presidential veto simply illustrates my frustration with President Obama and others who opposed the Court’s ruling but haven’t attempted to help move the modernized VRA forward.” 

Still, the lawmaker's surprising remarks could raise questions about his commitment to the Voting Rights Act Amendment, the bipartisan legislation he introduced in January that would put areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination in voting back under federal supervision. The measure, whch is backed by an array of voting rights groups, is seen as a crucial step toward reversing some of the damage done to voting rights by the Supreme Court last June. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court badly weakened the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by ending the system of federal “pre-clearance” that most southern states had been under.

Sensenbrenner’s importance to the effort can hardly be overstated—indeed, it's largely thanks to him that any fix to the VRA stands a realistic chance of passing. He introduced the measure in the House in January, and has worked to line up Republican co-sponsors for the bill. In 2006, Sensenbrenner, then the chair of the house Judiciary Committee, led the congressional process that reauthorized the VRA, holding hearings that produced reams of evidence showing that race bias in voting remained far from rare.

“Discrimination in the electoral process continues to exist and threatens to undermine the progress that has been made over the years,” Sensenbrenner said at a January press conference unveiling the new measure. “This is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed, and is vital to our continued commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.”