WASHINGTON — It was 1964 when the Ku Klux Klan killed Rita Bender’s husband, Michael Schwerner, for helping to register black voters in Mississippi — a crime that sparked an FBI probe and led to the film “Mississippi Burning.”
Now, 50 years later, Bender says she is stunned to see that members of Congress can’t even muster the will to vote on the issue that her husband gave his life for: legislation that restores the Voting Rights Act.
“You have a job to do. You have been elected by the people,” Bender told The Huffington Post during a visit to the White House last week to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of Schwerner. “Your obligation is to provide that all of the adult people in this country, all of the citizens of this country, can vote. … You don’t belong in Congress if you’re not going to act to protect all of the people of this country.”
It’s been a year and a half since the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and counties to clear changes to their voting laws with the federal government before they could proceed. The rule covered regions with a history of minority voter suppression, but the high court ruled 5-4 that it’s time for Congress to update which areas deserve special attention.
Lawmakers have yet to advance any legislation to restore the landmark law. In the meantime, states that previously required pre-clearance from the federal government — Mississippi and Texas, to name two — have gone on to pass laws that make voting harder for people who are poor, disabled or a minority, through such means as requiring a government-issued photo ID in order to vote.
Bender, who, like Schwerner, was a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s, said the Supreme Court decision was “an evisceration of voting rights” and that lawmakers have an obligation to ensure that everyone can vote, even though some may want to “stack the deck.”
“There are very many members of Congress who like the fact that there is control over who gets to vote,” she said. “I would like to see the Democrats in Congress, since I don’t think most of the Republicans are going to do it, call for a vote before this Congress goes out of session.”
That, of course, is most likely not going to happen. House and Senate leaders want to adjourn for the year by Dec. 11, and they have a packed agenda between now and then. Never mind that legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act hasn’t made it out of a House or Senate committee all year.
Prospects for the next two years aren’t great, either. Republicans will control both chambers, and only a handful of them are signed onto the current House bill, authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). The Senate bill currently has zero GOP cosponsors.
Aides to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said they didn’t know where the issue stands next year, and deferred to the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Aides to both of those committee chairmen told HuffPost they haven’t decided on their agendas for the next Congress.
At least one lawmaker plans to give Voting Rights Act legislation another push next year: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the author of the Senate bill and the current chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Of course,” said a Judiciary Committee aide when asked if Leahy will re-up his bill in 2015.
Leahy is holding a subcommittee hearing next week on the state of civil rights in America, which may touch on the need to restore the Voting Rights Act. He plugged the need to fix the 1965 law in remarks this fall.
“Congress must restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act by passing the bipartisan, bicameral legislation I introduced earlier this year with Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Congressman John Lewis and others,” he said in an October statement.
A Sensenbrenner spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on whether he planned to reintroduce the House bill next year.
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