House honors Selma marchers, stalled on Voting Rights Act

House lawmakers voted to honor Selma marchers, but are less inclined to move on an update to the Voting Rights Act.

Washington (CNN)It was a rare moment of bipartisanship on Wednesday afternoon, when the House of Representatives voted to honor the thousands of people who marched for voting rights in Selma 50 years ago with a congressional gold medal, Congress' highest civilian honor.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, whose district includes Selma. It passed unanimously with a vote of 420-0; nearly 200 Democrats and more than 100 Republicans co-sponsored the legislation, including Alabama's entire delegation.
"As we look toward the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, it is certainly fitting to honor the brave individuals who against brutality and oppression, took a stand for their God-given rights," said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Alabama, on the House floor.
    Roby said the goal was to get the bill through the House and the Senate before the March 7 anniversary of the first march, Bloody Sunday, and Sewell's office said by mid-afternoon on Thursday 29 senators had already signed onto a companion bill.
    But the strong show of cross-the-aisle amity displayed on Wednesday may be limited. Efforts to pass an update to the Voting Rights Act -- a change many argue is necessary after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County, AL vs Holder. The ruling outlawed a key part of the landmark 1965 legislation that required certain states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls to "pre-clear" any changes to voting laws with the federal government before implementing them.
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    "People are being denied voting rights today in this country and the Supreme Court emasculated the Voting Rights Act just recently. It needs to be reinstated," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee. "The movement isn't over. The movement continues. A medal is good, but the spirit must continue on this floor to see that all people have their rights to vote."
    On the same day the House voted to honor the Selma marchers, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, both members of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, a bill aimed at updating and strengthening the law. Among other things, it would require greater transparency in elections so that voters are made aware of changes to voting laws and set up a new nationwide coverage formula that would require states or jurisdictions to pre-clear changes to voting laws if they have a persistent record of voting rights violations over the last 15 years.
    Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced the same bill in the last Congress and while the overall effort, if not the specific bill, garnered support from then Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, it went nowhere.
    "Eric Cantor was the light at the end of the tunnel. It's likely going to take someone in Republican leadership to provide that," said a congressional aide. "Right now there is no indication that [House Judiciary Committee Chairman] Goodlatte or Republican leadership have an interest in moving this."
    An aide to House Speaker John Boehner referred CNN to the committee when asked about prospects for the bill. But Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said last month that he believed the Voting Rights Act was sufficient as it stands.
    "We have continued to study this issue, but to this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people, because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now," Goodlatte said.
    Many members of Congress do not agree. House Democrats are leading several efforts to address concerns about rights being curtailed in many states after the 2013 ruling through strict voter ID laws and other measures.
    President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August of 1965, and it has been re-authorized four times since. President George W. Bush signed the most recent re-authorization into law in 2006, after it passed both chambers with overwhelming support.
    The whole battle is getting bills like this to the floor, said one congressional aide.
    "We do think that if it went to the House floor, it would pass overwhelmingly, because it's a hard bill to vote against," said another aide. "It's one of the most important civil rights bills ever to pass and a "no" vote on the Voting Rights Act would be heavily scrutinized."