SELMA, Ala. — Hypocrisy. Disappointment. Frustration.
That’s how Democrats described their feelings about Republicans as they listened to President Barack Obama call for a renewal of the Voting Rights Act in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of the march that helped get the law passed 50 years ago.
Story Continued Below
Republicans who came here for the ceremony but aren’t prioritizing action back in Washington are frauds, they said. Republicans who didn’t show up at all — like House Speaker John Boehner and most of the rest of the GOP congressional leadership — should be ashamed for not even making the effort.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
“An absolute disgrace for Republicans in the year 2015 to work overtime to deny people the basic right to vote,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“The reason why our country was in the situation that they were in during the civil rights movement is because they didn’t want to do anything. They were prepared to just ride it out; they didn’t want to take any risk, any chance,” said Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), who was the lead plaintiff in the challenge to his state’s voter identification laws.
That’s how Republicans look now, Veasey said, but “they have the chance to change that perception.”
New voting rights legislation has been a nonstarter for years, since the days when Republicans in Congress began waiting for the Supreme Court to knock down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, including “pre-clearance,” which required the federal government to sign off on local voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination. That decision — from a legal challenge by Shelby County, Alabama, just north of Selma — came in June 2013 as Republicans had hoped, and legislation to restore or restructure the VRA has not received serious consideration by the Republican leadership since.
Many Democrats who came to hear the president and join him in the march said they were hopeful that new voting legislation might have a chance, that Republicans might feel differently after attending the weekend’s events.
“I remind people all the time that going into 1965 … people had to be brought kicking and screaming and there wasn’t an appetite in Congress, but it did get signed,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). “You never know what the dynamics will end up being. I can’t see it happening, but I’m hoping for it.”
On Saturday morning, Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement calling on people to honor Selma’s legacy “by rededicating ourselves to the cause of equality and freedom for all Americans.”
Castro said he was unimpressed.
“This is like anything. What matters more than words are your actions. Not just about today — but the legislation,” Castro said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the sole member of the House GOP leadership who came for Saturday’s ceremony, said he didn’t see acting on the VRA as the right way to move forward from Selma.
“There’s always different ways to solve a problem. But I think there’s always things we should look at,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy noted that this year’s delegation of two dozen Republicans was his party’s largest ever to a commemoration ceremony at Selma. And Congress has honored the legacy of the march, he said, pointing to the congressional gold medals awarded to Rep. John Lewis and other Selma foot soldiers, as well as the screening of the movie “Selma” hosted on the Hill last year.
But Saturday, McCarthy said, was only about history.
“I think today is celebrating what those did before us to make this nation better, and that’s what we’re all looking for,” McCarthy said.
It wasn’t just Republicans who skipped Selma this weekend. Expected Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who along with Obama attended the last big commemorative march in 2007, during her presidential campaign then, also didn’t attend, nor did former President Bill Clinton. They were at a Clinton Foundation event in Miami on Saturday. She did tweet: “Watched @repjohnlewis & @BarackObama in #Selma. Let’s answer their call to keep fighting for voting rights, civil rights, & human rights.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he agreed with Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that found the VRA had achieved its purpose and that voting discrimination was largely a thing of the past. Congress can consider some new changes, he said, but not a whole new VRA.
“I don’t think that the Supreme Court ruling has damaged voting rights in any real way,” Sessions said.
“I’m glad that they were here. I hope they heard the message,” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), with clear irritation in his voice.
Lewis has sponsored new civil rights legislation. Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) have their own amendment that would restore it as well.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) brought a copy of the amendment with him to the ceremony. Standing with Lewis, Obama and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), Selma’s congresswoman and Alabama’s first African-American woman in Washington, Coons said, was a chance to persuade more of his colleagues to sign on.
“The Voting Rights Act made possible that an African-American congresswoman from Selma is joining arms with the second-term African-American president of the United States to walk across the bridge,” Coons said.
Democrats believe they could easily pass these bills in Congress with a bipartisan majority, if only the Republican leadership would let them come up for votes. They know, though, that’s not happening soon.
“We’re still working on them,” Conyers said Saturday of the Republicans. Asked what he thought of those who didn’t come, he threw his hands in the air and shrugged.
But there are Republicans who say they’re more open to movement on voting rights — sort of.
“In the wake of the court’s decision, I think it’s probably appropriate for us to take it up,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
Portman said he’d just heard about Lewis’ bill Saturday morning, ahead of the ceremony, but had neither read it nor learned the details, so he couldn’t commit.
Voting rights legislation is “good, sound policy, and it’s time to get that done, taken care of,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.). “We’re here at Selma today on a historic day, coming together as Democrats and Republicans to stand for not only at a historical moment, but how we’re going to move forward.”
Reed said he didn’t need to bring any of his Republican colleagues around to that position — they’re already there, he said.
Asked whether that should be a priority for the next two years in Congress, Reed said, “We’re dealing with priorities on every issue in Washington, D.C.”
Former President George W. Bush, who signed a bipartisan renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, didn’t speak on Saturday, but he was on stage for the event and at Obama’s side for the march across the bridge afterward. Obama thanked him in his own remarks and got what was clearly not a usually Bush-friendly crowd to applaud the former president. When Obama brought audience members in the crowd to their feet calling for a new VRA, Bush and former first lady Laura Bush rose with them, joining in the applause.
Maybe, Meeks said, Bush could help bring his party along.
“I would love for him to stand up and — even if it’s privately — say to the leadership, ‘You all need to do this thing. It’s important for America,’” Meeks said.
In a weekend about unity and hope, many Democrats tried to channel that spirit, resisting taking swings at Republicans or admitting openly that voting rights has no hope in this Congress.
“What Selma represents is a path forward,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.). “My momma always said, ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’”
To the Rev. Jesse Jackson, anything less than immediate action is a betrayal of the legacy of the march. Saturday wasn’t about sitting in the white wooden folding chairs, or walking underneath the arch of the bridge. It was about trying to bring the memory of the blood and the struggle back to the present, when the Supreme Court decision on Shelby wasn’t greeted by a revolt.
“Congress must go back to Washington not as demonstrators, but as legislators to restore the protective right to vote and address the issue of poverty in a meaningful way,” Jackson said, looking around this small city, which remains devastated by inequality in a way that he said is all too familiar for black communities around America. “Everyone will say, ‘Selma made me possible. Selma helped me.’ Well, help Selma.”
Lauren French contributed to this report.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/03/selma-highlights-hypocrisy-on-voting-rights-democrats-say-115867.html#ixzz3U91is5hy