Black Democrats are pressing party leaders and the head of a key committee to hit the gas on legislation designed to combat discrimination at the polls.
Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) want to expedite a vote on a nascent proposal, named after the late civil rights icon John Lewis, to update the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court gutted the law's central protections almost a decade ago.
The House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), has already staged three hearings on the topic this year, with more scheduled to take place after the long August recess.
Members of the Black Caucus, however, don't want to wait that long.
Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who heads the CBC, said the group on Wednesday night "demanded" a meeting with the panel designed to compel Nadler to accelerate that timeline and stage those hearings in July — something the committee has agreed to, Beatty said.
"Tonight we want it on the record that we are asking that they end their hearings during the July committee work week," Beatty, flanked by roughly 20 other members of the Black Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol. "We cannot wait until October or November for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act."
The push comes as states around the country, virtually all of them led by Republicans, are racing to adopt new voting restrictions amid a torrent of false claims from former President Trump that the 2020 election was "stolen" by Democrats and corrupt election officials.
No evidence has emerged to support those charges, and dozens of courts around the country have dismissed the allegations as unfounded.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Administration Committee's subpanel on elections, has held five hearings on voting rights this year, examining issues like poll closings and voter ID laws. More than 20 witnesses testified, Butterfield said, "about election practices that disproportionately and materially burden minority voters and have a discriminatory effect on voter participation."
Butterfield said he intends to crunch his work into a 2,500-page document and deliver it to Nadler "in just a few days." If Nadler agrees to hold his remaining Judiciary hearings in July, Butterfield said, then Democrats can finish drafting the John Lewis legislation in August, with hopes that Democratic leaders will bring it to the floor in September, when Congress returns from the long recess.
"I am expecting quick passage in the House," he said.
Other CBC members, pointing to the raft of new state laws, echoed the calls of urgency.
"It is a right that is under attack. We see it in Georgia; we see it in Florida; we see it in Iowa. And we cannot stand by while the right to vote is stripped away," said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). "It's time to bring it to the floor."
Nadler, in a statement issued late Wednesday night, said protecting voting rights is the committee's "highest priority," acknowledging the "urgency" to restore the Voting Rights Act given the "threats to our democracy" in a "shifting legal climate." But he stopped short of committing to the July hearings requested by the Black Caucus.
"In our ongoing work, the Committee will continue to work closely with the Congressional Black Caucus and other caucuses and stakeholders to ensure that their unique concerns are met as we complete our hearings and move legislation to the floor as expeditiously as possible,” Nadler said.
The push for quick action on voting rights — and the press conference that announced it — are part of a broader CBC effort to ensure that their legislative priorities are not overlooked in the mad dash to accomplish the ambitious legislative agenda of the new Biden administration.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, noted that following the Great Depression, African Americans were excluded from the New Deal; and following World War II, they were not eligible for the GI Bill.
"So in the aftermath of this once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic — a public health health and an economic criss — we're here as CBC members to say, 'Not this time.' African Americans will not be excluded from the Build Back Better effort," he said, referring to Biden's infrastructure banner. "We want to make sure that infrastructure moving forward is broadly inclusive of our priorities."
For Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Democratic whip, that means ensuring that provisions expanding broadband in rural America are not excluded — even if internet access does not meet the definition of "traditional" infrastructure.
"Most of us are here because we did not follow that which is traditional," Clyburn said of his Black Caucus colleagues.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) used Wednesday's forum to press for a vote on another piece of legislation, one launching a federal study into reparations for the descendants of slaves in America. That legislation has passed through the Judiciary Committee, but has not won a commitment from Democratic leaders to bring it to the floor.