Political Odd Couple Together Again on Contentious Effort
By Laurie Kellman
The white Wisconsin lawyer and the black preacher from Georgia strode into the Senate hearing room together and took their seats, shoulder-to-shoulder, at the witness table. Veteran lawmakers and experts in civil rights law, they had been here before.
Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Democratic Rep. John Lewis are men of a certain age and experience amid a Congress marked by a bitter aversion to working together. Though political and temperamental opposites, they have paired up for decades on one of the nation’s most painful issues_ racial politics – and won overwhelming bipartisan passage when they have sought to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.
This time it’s Sensenbrenner’s third rewrite of the 1965 law and Lewis’ second. The Supreme Court’s decision to gut the product of their partnership has called them together again, but the odds of successfully persuading their colleagues to rewrite the law once again aren’t clear.
“This is going to be a little harder,” Sensenbrenner said after the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and the day before a House session. “It’s uncharted waters.”
“If anyone on the other side of the aisle can bring people to the table and get it done, this man can do it,” Lewis said of Sensenbrenner in a telephone interview. “He is tireless. And he will not take `no’ for an answer.”
Influential House Republicans, such as Speaker John Boehner, aren’t saying much of anything about the prospects for a bill to pass the GOP-led House. So with time ticking toward the 2014 elections and the Republicans eager to draw support from blacks and Hispanics, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, Sensenbrenner and Lewis are laying the groundwork for their case. They testified Wednesday before the Senate. A House panel opened its own hearing Thursday, with Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte making no commitment to a new bill, but pointing out that the justices let stand other anti-discrimination provisions in the law.
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 last month to effectively halt the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, enacted to outlaw racial discrimination against voters in local, state and federal elections. Some entire states and counties were subjected to special federal enforcement, with requirements to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws.