Even before the latest version of the Voting Rights Act is unveiled in the House on Thursday, a split is emerging between several congressional caucuses over what some claim is an absence of forward-looking protections for communities of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and others.
A private meeting Wednesday between the bill's Democratic sponsors, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and other groups left those differences unresolved.
"We're walking a narrow line," said Rep. John Conyers, one of the bill's sponsors and the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "If we overreach, we will lose Republican votes. But if we don't go far enough, we will lose votes on our own side."
Aides to the lead GOP sponsor, former Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, did not respond Wednesday to requests to talk about the bill, the introduction of which is time to before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend.
The measure is a legislative response to the Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down a decades-old formula used to identify locations nationwide that require federal approval before changing elections procedures. The Court said Congress was free to enact a new formula.
As of Wednesday, the complete contents of the new, bipartisan House bill was still being held closely by its sponsors, though outlines were released to some lawmakers and outside groups.
A memo labeled as a "confidential draft" and dated Jan. 14 contained a description of the provisions in the bill. Included was a section regarding violations that trigger the authority of a court to intervene, which includes a new standard for cases involving photo identification requirements. Another section shows how oversight can be triggered if certain numbers of voting-rights violations occur within a 15-year period in a state or local jurisdiction or if it has "persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout." There are disclosure requirements for voting law changes and a provision that the attorney general has the continuing authority to request federal observers in jurisdictions subject to oversight.
A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would not comment Wednesday on whether companion legislation is being introduced in the Senate.
The emerging disagreement between some minority groups is whether Democrats should push for additional language to incorporate what is known as a "known practices" coverage formula for federal approval, a broader approach than used in the past.
Endorsed by Latino, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, and Native American organizations, the mechanism would tie federal oversight not just to certain geographical areas and past practices, but to particular practices wherever they occur. That would cover more of the nation's most rapidly growing racial-, ethnic-, and language-minority communities.
Many members of the Black Caucus are already saying they are inclined to support the bill, and are concerned that pressing for the broader language could threaten the fragile bipartisan support for the measure.
But many members of the Hispanic Caucus and groups inside and outside Congress representing other minority populations say they have concerns, and are pushing for the inclusion of the additional language.
"We don't have reservations about the bill. We just want to amend it," said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the 26-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who serves as cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, echoed Hinojosa, saying the new Voting Rights Act must accommodate "the growth in the Latino and other communities."
Outside groups that have weighed in similarly include Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the Native American Rights Fund.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO, said his group wants to make sure that discriminatory election procedures are addressed in the bill in all jurisdictions, not just those covered in the past.
But Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil-rights icon, said Wednesday that he believes work on the bill by Sensenbrenner and Democrats has been a sincere effort at bipartisanship to "repair the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court."
"It's not all that we want. It's not a perfect bill. But it's a good bill," Lewis said.
Rep. Hank Johnson, a fellow Georgia Democrat, said, "Nobody's really enamored with it. But the bill does move the ball forward — and that's kind of where we are. You're not going to get everything you want. That's just the reality of it."
Another Judiciary Committee Democrat, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, said that "everybody is assessing the bill and we all have concerns — but the main issue is that we'll have something rather than that Supreme Court decision."
"Right now, the hurdle is getting Republican votes," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat.