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House Republican Sponsor Wants New Voting Rights Law

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WASHINGTON - MAY 30: U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) swears in witnesses during the oversight hearing titled 'Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?' on Capitol Hill May 30, 2006 in Washington, DC. Although Congress is at recess, several congressmen attended the hearing. The raid of Jefferson's Capitol Hill offices by the FBI was an 'offense that strikes at the separation of powers,' George Washin | Getty

WASHINGTON -- The House Republican sponsor of the Voting Rights Act updates said Wednesday that Congress must pass a new anti-discrimination law before the 2014 elections that restores the federal supervision the Supreme Court struck down in June.

"The Supreme Court said it's an obligation of Congress to do this. That's a command of a separate but co-equal branch of government to do that," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told reporters Wednesday after urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to get moving on the issue. The law, he said, should be passed before the congressional elections. He added that House GOP leaders are open to the task, but they have to see a draft first, it must address the court's objections and be "politically acceptable in both houses" of Congress.

"The American people expect us to roll up our sleeves and get to work," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement, said at the same hearing.

The 1965 law and its extensions have historically won overwhelming bipartisan support.

But Republicans and Democrats working together is a tall order in an age of divided government and scorched-earth partisanship that only died down a day earlier when the Senate struck a deal to avert a ban on some filibusters. Democrats control the presidency and the Senate, while Republicans have the House majority.

More broadly, the Voting Rights Act hearings this week in the Senate and, on Thursday, in the House, come at a tense time for race relations. The nation is grappling with the acquittal this week of George Zimmerman in the shooting of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. President Barack Obama, the country's first black president, has reacted cautiously to the Florida jury's verdict.

And politically, Republicans are struggling through immigration in their bid to appeal to Hispanics and other voters who turned out overwhelmingly for Democrats in last year's elections. So rewriting a part of the Voting Rights act is sensitive for the GOP.

The high court put race relations squarely in Congress' hands last month when the justices ruled 5-4 to strike as outdated a 1975 formula that determines which districts are required to get Washington's permission to change their voting practices. The ruling gutted the key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, credited with ensuring ballot access to millions of black Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Congress has an opportunity to retool the law's so-called preclearance sections that give the U.S. Justice Department veto power over local election changes.

Sensenbrenner, who as House Judiciary Committee chairman led the 2006 extension of the law, Lewis and other lawmakers reacted angrily immediately after last month's ruling and urged Congress to quickly update the language struck down by the court. But some Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner, have been noncommittal. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has pledged to hold a hearing on Thursday but has not said whether he'd support the legislation Sensenbrenner and Lewis are urging.

"They need to see a draft," Sensenbrenner said of other Republicans who have not urged legislation.

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