After Voting Rights Act weakened, Congress considers its next step

With its decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively left the fate of a key portion of the landmark 1965 law in the hands of Congress.

The court ruled that Section 4, which provides the formula for determining which states must have any changes to their voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department, is outdated and thus unconstitutional. If Congress wants to keep certain states (mostly southern states with a history of racism) under the Justice Department's watch, it will have to rewrite Section 4.

Congress will take up the issue this summer, but some Democrats on Tuesday were pessimistic that Republicans would agree to update the law. The administration, meanwhile, vowed to use all the tools at its disposal to enforce the remaining laws on the books and protect voters from discrimination.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the court's ruling "stunning" and said he plans on holding hearings in July on the Voting Rights Act. "I'm going to do it in a bipartisan way, I'm going to ask both Republicans and Democrats to give me ideas and see if we can put together legislation that will respond to this," he said.

While Leahy said he would seek GOP support in the Senate, he said he's "given up trying to predict" what the Republican-led House of Representatives would support.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also a member of the Judiciary Committee, was more blunt about potential GOP opposition. In a statement, he called the court ruling a "back door way to gut the Voting Rights Act."

"As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don't have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance," he said, referring to the process by which the Justice Department reviews state voting laws.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House Minority Whip, also struck a note of pessimism about the chances for the law's revision. The Republican Party, he told reporters Tuesday, "is a much more ideological, rigid party than it was in 2006" - the last time Congress, with strong bipartisan support, renewed the Voting Rights Act.

At least one Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he'd engage with Democrats who want to revise the law.

"I'm open to looking at ways to address the issues addressed in the court's decision," Grassley, another Judiciary Committee member, said in a statement. "The opportunity to vote is one of the most fundamental rights afforded to American citizens. And, as protectors of the Constitution, Congress must defend that right."

Grassley did, however, say he thought the Justice Department had been misusing Section 4 to target "common sense measures such as voter identification laws."