By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress on Tuesday vowed to push to restore protections for the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It was unclear whether Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, would provide the support needed for any legislative effort to offset the high-court ruling, which was denounced by Democrats as a setback for civil rights.
The justices ruled 5-4 that Congress had used obsolete reasoning in continuing to force nine states, mainly in the South, to get federal approval if they made changes in election laws affecting blacks and other minorities.
The decision came after recent election cycles in which some states have tried to impose last-minute changes to voting rules. Critics complained those changes were aimed at suppressing the votes of minorities, while backers said they were designed to stop voter fraud.
Obama, a Democrat who in 2009 became the country’s first African American president, decried the Supreme Court ruling and said, “I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”
The Voting Rights Act, a centerpiece of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, was meant to ensure access to the ballot box for minorities, traditional allies of Democrats, in states where such voting rights were considered at risk.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy promised to move quickly to restore the law in the 100-seat, Democratic-led U.S. Senate.
The Supreme Court, Leahy said, had “struck down the core of the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in this nation’s history.” The Vermont Democrat said his panel would hold hearings in July and he would try to fashion a bipartisan bill. But it was unclear how far such a bill might advance.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, voiced doubts that Congress could reverse the court ruling.
“As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate,” to end Republican procedural roadblocks, Schumer said, “there will be no (U.S.) preclearance” for changes in state voting laws.
In recent elections, voters in some states have had to suffer through unusually long waits to cast their ballots and other ballot-box problems, which discouraged some from voting.
If any legislation emerges from Congress, it could try to tackle such problems.
Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, were largely silent immediately after the court’s ruling.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, asked by reporters later in the day about the Supreme Court ruling, said he had to review it, but added: “America is very different today than it was in the 1960s” amid segregation and election laws aimed at blocking blacks from voting.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, suggested that his state had been treated unfairly since it was among those that had to receive preclearance.
He complained that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had refused to approve voter identification laws in Texas and South Carolina.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on Leahy’s committee, said he was open to trying to address concerns raised by the court about the formula for preclearance.
“The opportunity to vote is one of the most fundamental rights afforded to American citizens. And, as protectors of the Constitution, Congress must defend that right,” said Grassley, who voted for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and 2006.
The current version of the law was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress in 2006 and signed by Republican President George W. Bush.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi denounced the Supreme Court ruling as “a step backward on civil rights,” but said Congress should take it “as a cue” to take additional action itself, as it did in 2006, to bolster the law.
“It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to remove obstacles to voting, to ensure every citizen has the right to vote and every vote is counted as cast,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller, David Storey and Mohammad Zargham)