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Jim Sensenbrenner, GOP Voting Rights Act Champion, Fears Black Panthers Case Will Stop Reform

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JAMES SENSENBRENNER
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is a champion of the Voting Rights Act. | AP

WASHINGTON -- The best hope for replacing a key provision of the Voting Rights Act is a white Republican lawyer from Wisconsin who supports voter ID laws, thinks the Justice Department went easy on the New Black Panther Party, played a key role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and once said first lady Michelle Obama has a "big butt.”

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is a key voice in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for replacing Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which determines which parts of the U.S. must have changes to their voting laws precleared by the Justice Department. Section 4 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last month.

Sensenbrenner, who helped pass reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and 2006, is once again a key Republican figure now that Congress is trying to fix what the Supreme Court killed. He was on the phone with Attorney General Eric Holder soon after the ruling came down and appeared before at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

“He’s a civil rights icon in his own right,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during the hearing.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sensenbrenner, 70, said he was a skeptic of the Voting Rights Act during the first reauthorization he was involved in back in 1982. But the “evidence was so strong about continuing discrimination,” he said, that he helped convince then-President Ronald Reagan to sign it. Ahead of the 2006 reauthorization, congressional staffers put together “probably the most extensive record ever compiled by Congress on anything in the history of the Republic,” Sensenbrenner said.

Unfortunately, Sensenbrenner said, the Supreme Court “ignored all of that,” leaving Congress to come up with a new formula determining which jurisdictions need to have changes to their voting laws precleared. He admitted it’s an uphill battle.

“It’s going to be much more difficult,” Sensenbrenner said. “Both figuring out how to make Section 4 compliant with the court’s decision in the Shelby County case, as well as figuring out what type of a formula would be able to pass both houses, is going to require an awful lot of political input and negotiations.

“This is a puzzle that is not going to be easy to solve,” he said. “You know, if you sit next to someone who is doing sudoku on the plane, you know you’ve got the easy ones and the hard ones. This is going to be the hard one squared.”

There’s a few ways Congress could replace Section 4. For one, it could draft new legislation, using recent data, that forces areas with low minority voter turnout to have their laws precleared. Alternatively, members of Congress could pick out certain jurisdictions that have passed discriminatory voting laws in recent years.

Sensenbrenner, who supports strict voter ID laws like the ones the Obama administration blocked under the Voting Rights Act in Texas and South Carolina ahead of the 2012 presidential election, said it was too early to say what type of fixes he would try to pass. But no matter which he chooses, Sensenbrenner said the Justice Department Civil Rights Division’s track record will make it more difficult to convince Republicans that Voting Rights Act reform is necessary.

“The Justice Department’s activity and lack of activity, particularly with the intimidation that I think was going on in north Philadelphia with the New Black Panther Party, is going to make it much more difficult to revive the Voting Rights Act,” Sensenbrenner said. “The Justice Department is going to have to be in on this and they’re going to have to be sensitive that they’re going to have to address some of these concerns if there is to be a revival of the Voting Rights Act.”

In the New Black Panther Party case, heavily covered in conservative media, a Republican activist hired into a career Justice Department position during the Bush administration brought a 2008 voter intimidation case against members of the fringe group after a member held a baton outside of polling place in Philadelphia. Once President Barack Obama took office, his administration decided there was insufficient evidence to justify a civil case against one defendant and the New Black Panther Party. An internal Justice Department review found that Obama administration officials acted properly.

Sensenbrenner said he still has to determine whether the Hastert rule in the House will affect a vote to fix the Voting Rights Act. If so, the rule would require a majority of Republicans to support the fix before it can be brought to a vote. Sensenbrenner said he has spoken with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), but declined to elaborate.

“The thing is that the Voting Rights Act should be party-blind and colorblind," Sensenbrenner said. "We’re talking about the sacred right to vote rather than who has been elected. When Sen. Leahy at the Senate hearing yesterday called me a civil rights icon, I said, 'No, I’m a mechanic. Sometimes when your car is not working properly and you take it to the mechanic, the mechanic always takes more time than you hope before it’s fixed and you get your car back. I’m the mechanic.'”

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