The Republican lawmaker in a key position to help bolster the Voting Rights Act (VRA) isn't convinced new legislation is needed, and wants more evidence that current laws aren't strong enough to stop racial discrimination in voting, according to people involved in the discussions. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte's go-slow approach -- which comes as efforts to pass the bipartisan measure before this fall's midterm elections enter a critical phase -- is causing frustration among voting-rights advocates.
It's been nearly a year since a narrow, conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, but let's not forget that the ruling was, to a certain extent, open-ended. The Republican-appointed justices didn't say which part of the Constitution the VRA violated, but they also didn't say what Congress should do to fix it.
Nevertheless, a bipartisan group of lawmakers got to work and in January they unveiled the Voting Rights Amendment Act, a reform bill intended to address the Supreme Court's concerns. So far, it's been slow going -- four months after its introduction, the bill has only 22 co-sponsors, and most of them are part of the House Democratic minority.
My msnbc colleague Zachary Roth reported yesterday that the Voting Rights Act's future is dependent in part on the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who apparently doesn't see much of a need for the proposal.
Goodlatte said he wouldn't even hold a hearing on the proposed VRA fix until he'd seen evidence of voting discrimination in the wake of last year's Supreme Court ruling, prompting the NAACP to respond with a detailed report, documenting the information the Virginia Republican said he wanted.
In response, neither Goodlatte nor his committee would commit to holding even a single hearing.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who'd made some noises about possible action this year on the VRA, told Zack through a spokesperson that members "continue to have conversations" about the law's future.
Of course, vague, non-committal assurances from the House Republican leadership are worth watching, but there's a broader political context to this.
In theory, congressional support for the Voting Rights Act -- or at least the new proposed version of it -- should be one of the year's easiest votes. When Congress last considered the VRA, support for the law was nearly unanimous -- and in the Senate, it was literally unanimous.
So why would Republicans oppose it now? As we talked about in January, it's because they think they can kill the law now and get away with it.
It's one thing to vote to reauthorize a landmark law from the civil-rights era; it's something else to approve new legislation that might make it easier for Americans to participate in their democracy -- the kind of participation conservatives fear may be detrimental to Republican victories.
But away from Capitol Hill, Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee continue to argue that they're committed to genuine outreach to minority communities. The RNC chair makes routine appearances before African-American audiences, insisting that his appeals are entirely sincere.
It's hard to miss the disconnect between RNC reaching out to black voters while Republican-appointed justices gut the Voting Rights Act and Republican lawmakers ignore efforts to fix it.
If Priebus wanted to do something bold, he could endorse the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act, though it seems hard to imagine him doing so.