The House on Tuesday passed voting rights legislation named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a party-line vote that underscores the bill's nearly impassable upward climb in the Senate.
Safeguarding voting rights is a top issue for Democrats, whose signature election reform measure has all but stalled out after Senate Republicans filibustered the sweeping bill in June. But most Republicans also oppose the more targeted Lewis-named legislation, which would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), the bill’s lead sponsor, said lawmakers had a “moral obligation” to combat voting restrictions by passing the legislation.
“Old battles have indeed become new again,” she said. “While literacy tests and poll taxes no longer exist, certain states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that are modern-day barriers to voting. As long as voter suppression exists, the need for full protections from the [Voting Rights Act] will continue.”
The bill passed by a 219-212 vote.
It is unlikely to advance further in the Senate, where the legislative filibuster remains intact despite a progressive push for changes that would weaken the chamber's supermajority requirement to pass most bills. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has cast doubt on the need for the proposal, arguing that the Supreme Court only eliminated the preclearance formula determining which jurisdictions needed federal approval to make substantive changes to voting laws — not the voting rights protections themselves.
Advocates, on the other hand, say the voting protections are toothless without that preclearance formula.
The Lewis-named bill only has one GOP sponsor in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House panel that oversees federal elections, denounced the legislation as a “federal takeover” of elections and a “partisan power grab.”
The Congressional Black Caucus and other top Democrats had pushed for the bill’s consideration to be moved up before the fall. Democratic lawmakers and staff worked for months to craft a new preclearance formula they believed could survive judicial scrutiny if the bill were ever signed into law and challenged in court. The bill also addresses a July Supreme Court decision that could make it harder to challenge voting laws.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn was in tears during a closed-door meeting of Democrats Tuesday morning as he spoke about the legislation and his parents’ experiences with voting discrimination, according to a member in the room.
Democrats and advocates see the Lewis-named bill as one of their last opportunities to head off laws restricting voting access that many states passed in the aftermath of the 2020 election. But they have struggled to chart a path forward after the bigger elections and ethics bill was filibustered and a handful of senators resisted abolishing the procedural roadblock.
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.
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