After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in June, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. pledged to continue aggressive enforcement while, at the same time, pressing Congress to fix the law.
But the U.S. Department of Justice's legal actions against Texas on Thursday might have inadvertently harmed the chances of a fix on Capitol Hill, according to one key congressman.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the main Republican proponent of legislation to restore the preclearance requirement of the VRA, criticized Holder's decision to file suit under Section 2 of the VRA challenging the state's voter identification law. That section was not affected by the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.
"I spoke with Attorney General Holder today and requested that he withdraw his Section 2 lawsuit until there can be a legislative fix of the Voting Rights Act," Sensenbrenner said in a written statement. "The lawsuit would make it much more difficult to pass a bipartisan fix to restore the heart of the VRA that the Supreme Court struck down earlier this year."
Sensenbrenner, who led the push to reauthorize the VRA in 2006, supports voter identification measures. He said in the statement that he regretted the Justice Department’s action. "The Texas legislature passed Voter ID, and Governor Perry signed this legislation into law in 2011," Sensenbrenner said. "Voter ID laws are an essential element in protecting the integrity of our electoral process and do not have a discriminatory intent or effect."
The statement from Sensenbrenner calls into question whether the House will have support for legislation to fix the law after in Shelby County. The 5-4 decision in the high court struck down Section 4 of the law, which contains the formula for determining which jurisdictions have a history of discrimination and need to get that preclearance for election law changes under Section 5 of the VRA.
Holder, in a written statement announcing Thursday's legal action, said the Justice Department would use all available authority to keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. Texas announced almost immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision that it would put into effect controversial voter identification law and new redistricting maps.
That includes a request that the court order that Texas be "bailed-in" under Section 3(c) of the VRA, which would require the state to get preclearance from the Justice Department or the federal district court in Washington for such law changes.
It was Sensenbrenner who testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in July on Capitol Hill, and even then he recognized that the political climate in Congress doesn't bode well for passing any fix. "Sometimes the differences between the House and the Senate are the difference between here and the moon," he said during a the committee hearing. "Hopefully, not on this one."
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Sensenbrenner's statements Thursday.