Congressional Gold Medal ceremonies are typically times when intense legislative battles being waged within the halls of the Capitol can only be alluded to, or mentioned in carefully calculated moments. These are choreographed events where officials laud principles that are broad enough that they can also be bipartisan.
So it was somewhat striking that at Tuesday's ceremony, which also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act's passing, some elected officials advocated, in clear, specific terms, for Congress to pass a bill intended to fix a portion of the Voting Rights Act.
It wasn't a coordinated effort by the Congressional Black Caucus, and each member of Congress who spoke was free to say what he or she wished to say. But the remarks from a number of the Democratic lawmakers carried the same message, and directly connected their agenda to move the bill to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who were being honored at the ceremony.
"With the Civil Rights Act and his many other great works, President Johnson did his part to protect our freedom. With his words, activism, and sacrifice, Dr. King did the same," CBC Chair Marcia Fudge said. "Today, the responsibility lies with every American, especially those in this House. We must fulfill the promise of the Civil Rights Act by ensuring every American's right to vote is protected. Let's pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014," she concluded, to applause.
And then there was Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who evoked the memory of the Kings: "If the Reverend and Mrs. King could speak to us now, if our predecessors who passed the Civil Rights Act could speak to us now, would they not challenge us to come together, across lines of party and geography, in a great cause? Would they not encourage us, for example, to pass legislation restoring the protections of the Voting Rights Act?"
Levin, who also alluded to prison-sentencing reform, continued: "We can best celebrate the lives of those we honor and remember today by channeling their inspiration into taking on the tasks before us, tasks surely far, far less daunting than the ones they undertook."
And then there was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "stand among the greatest legislative accomplishments of our country."
"As we bestow the Congressional Gold Medal for Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, we must insist on the truth, and that truth is to truly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we must pass the bipartisan Voting Rights Act in this Congress," Pelosi said.
Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, the formula used to determine which jurisdictions have to receive federal clearance before making changes to how they run elections. Since then, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House have come up with a bill to rewrite that formula, led by Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Democratic Rep. John Conyers. It currently has 10 Republicans and 16 Democrats as cosponsors.
Some Republicans have signaled that another portion of the Voting Rights Act that the Court didn't rule on provides sufficient protections. And the proposal has also drawn some criticism from those who believe that it doesn't go far enough to include broader language.
Outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor had publicly expressed support for finding some sort of consensus, although he never committed to floor time on the bill. "He was willing to meet and negotiate," Conyers said.
Cantor's shocking primary loss earlier this month left Democrats such as Fudge and the House's No. 3 Democrat, James Clyburn, seeing no change in the political calculus in getting the bill through the House.
But Conyers did say, in the aftermath of Cantor's loss, that it could complicate matters. "I'm not positive about that, but this Cantor situation now has created a hands-off attitude among many of the conservatives, so that makes it more difficult," Conyers said the week Cantor was defeated.
Democrats are now trying to amp up the pressure on House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte to call up the bill, specifically with the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act passing.
King's son, Martin Luther King III, also used the day to highlight his push for Congress to move the VRA fix. In an editorial published in The Hill, he wrote, "In a larger sense, today's ceremony is not one of celebration but of mourning." He continued: "Mourning because, as we approach another anniversary, that of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are moving backward rather than forward in protecting our sacred right to vote and engaging more citizens in the voting process."