Obama, Democrats vow to act on voter rights after ruling

WASHINGTON Tue Jun 25, 2013 2:47pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress on Tuesday promised to act swiftly to restore protections for the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities after the 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 critics 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.

Obama, a Democrat who in 2009 became the country's first African American president, 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.

"I intend to take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination," Leahy said.

A Senate Democratic aide familiar with the issue said it was likely that the Judiciary Committee would hold hearings on new legislation, but it was unclear how quickly a bill would begin moving through the Senate.

Senator Charles Schumer, 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.

REPUBLICANS SILENT

Republicans were largely silent on the court's ruling. Neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, had any immediate comment.

Leahy said the Supreme Court had "struck down the core of the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in this nation's history."

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, like 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," Pelosi said.

(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and David Storey)

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