02/24/2015 09:11 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2015

Lawmakers Honor Civil Rights Marchers But Do Nothing On Voting Rights Act


WASHINGTON -- It took the Senate Banking Committee about two minutes on Tuesday to unanimously pass a bill honoring those who walked in the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama.

"I am pleased to serve as an original co-sponsor of this bill," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman, moments before it passed.

But while the bill has a noble aim -- to award the Congressional Gold Medal to thousands of people who marched on Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday and the final stretch of the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery -- most of its supporters are doing nothing to restore the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that came in response to those marches.

The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the act in 2013. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that the time had come to update that section, which determined which states and localities with a history of minority voter suppression had to get permission from the Justice Department to change voting laws. The court left it up to Congress to come up with a new formula for designating which regions of the country require special scrutiny.

That was more than a year and a half ago. House and Senate lawmakers introduced a bill last year to restore the law, but it went nowhere, largely due to a lack of GOP supporters. The House bill had a handful; the Senate bill had none.

Because of congressional inaction, states that previously required pre-clearance from the federal government -- Mississippi and Texas, to name two -- have been able to pass laws that make voting more difficult for people who are poor, disabled or a minority, through such means as requiring a government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

Some lawmakers are trying to push the bill again in this Congress, but its prospects look grim. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) reintroduced their House bill this month with fewer GOP co-sponsors than it had last year. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is expected to reintroduce the Senate bill soon, still without a GOP co-sponsor.

"I will continue to work to find a Senate Republican to join me in introducing bipartisan legislation to restore this landmark law so that every American's right to vote is protected," Leahy said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said last month he doesn't think it's "necessary" to restore the law.

As the 50th anniversary of Selma approaches on March 7, lawmakers' eagerness to celebrate those who marched stands in sharp contrast to the lack of interest in fixing the law that resulted from their bravery.

Of the 22 senators on the Banking Committee who voted for Tuesday's bill, which explicitly states that the Selma marches "served as a catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965," only two were co-sponsors of last year's bill to restore the law: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The same bill that just cleared the Banking Committee sailed through the House earlier this month, 420-0. Yet the Voting Rights Act bill in that chamber has just 30 co-sponsors.

The Huffington Post reached out to all of the Senate Banking Committee members to see if any planned to sign on to Leahy's bill. No Republican offices responded. Four Democratic offices did.

"Senator Reed supports restoring the Voting Rights Act and is looking forward to taking a look at Senator Leahy's new Voting Rights Amendment package when it's introduced this Congress," said Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

"He will co-sponsor again," said Brown spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak. "Next week, he's leading the Faith and Politics Congressional pilgrimage to Selma, and may be introducing additional legislation related to the 50th anniversary."

A spokeswoman for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said she supports fixing the Voting Rights Act but wants to make sure it includes protections for Native Americans. A Schumer spokesman said the senator is on board too, assuming the bill is the same as last year.

Before moving on to other business in the Banking Committee, Brown made a plea to his colleagues to pay tribute to those who marched in Selma not simply by giving them a medal, but by staying true to their purpose.

"It used to be we were in the business of expanding voter rolls, but lately too many states have thrown up barriers to voting, ostensibly to cure the problem of in-person voting fraud. But this kind of fraud is almost nonexistent," Brown said. "Fifty years later, state governments are once again making it a bit harder, or in some cases a lot harder, to vote. Let's honor those foot soldiers today, March 7 and in everything we do."



Selma to Montgomery