FANNIE LOU HAMER, ROSA PARKS, AND CORETTA SCOTT KING VOTING RIGHTS ACT REAUTHORIZATION AND AMENDMENTS ACT OF 2006 -- (Senate - July 20, 2006)
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Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act brings back a lot of memories of my early life and childhood. When I was born in the Deep South, in Alabama, segregation, regretfully, was still very much in vogue. I remember all too well segregated restrooms, segregated entrances into movie theaters, and segregated schools which still existed when I started in the first grade in the late 1940s.
I subsequently lived with my parents in Alabama for a few years. Then we moved to Louisville, KY, about the time Kentucky was integrating its schools in response to the 1954 landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. Integration in public schools in Kentucky was smoothly accomplished, I think a tribute to our State which is somewhat southern and somewhat a border State. Kentucky accommodated itself to a new reality of integrated schools rather easily with the minimum amount of some of the distress that occurred in other parts further South and actually in some northern cities as well.
In the early 1960s, I had an opportunity to be an intern over on the House side in 1963. I was here that summer when the extraordinary march on Washington occurred. I remember standing on the steps of the Capitol, looking down the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. It was crowded with people from one side to the other all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial which, of course, is where Martin Luther King, Jr. made that extraordinary ``I Have a Dream'' speech. I couldn't hear it because I was at the opposite end of the Mall, but you sensed that you were in the midst of an extraordinary event that was going to change America. That night, I had an opportunity to watch the speech on television. You knew it was one of the most memorable speeches of all time in American history.
The next year, I had a chance to be an intern on the Senate side, in Senator John Sherman Cooper's office. Senator Cooper was probably the only truly successful Kentucky Republican at that point in our history in our State. He was among the members of the Republican Party leading the charge for the public accommodations bill of 1964, that is, the civil rights bill of 1964 which, interestingly enough, on a percentage basis, was supported by more Republicans in the Senate than by Democrats. I think not many Americans know that, but that was, indeed, the case. A higher percentage of Republicans supported the civil rights bill of 1964 than did Democrats.
I had a wonderful summer observing Senator Cooper at work when he was, in effect, leading the charge on the Republican side, along with Everett Dirksen, to stop the longest filibuster in the history of the Senate--and it is still the longest filibuster--that was employed against the civil rights bill of 1964. That filibuster was broken while I was an intern that summer. It was an exciting time. The bill was passed and President Johnson signed it.
The next summer after I finished my first year of law school, I came back to Washington to visit some of the friends I had made in the two previous summers, for a week or so. I happened to be in Senator Cooper's office on the day President Johnson was to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the Rotunda of the Capitol. Senator Cooper came out, grabbed my arm in the reception room of his office and walked me over to the Rotunda where I got an opportunity to watch President Johnson sign the voting rights bill. The Rotunda was full of people. I was not exactly standing beside President Johnson--I was way off in the distance--but I do recall the presence of President Johnson. He was an enormous man. Not only was he very tall, he had a huge head, huge features, and he sort of stood out above this mass of humanity in the Rotunda of the Capitol.
And so it was, indeed, a memorable day. I happen to have been there the day the original voting rights bill was signed.
This is a piece of legislation which, obviously, has worked. African-American voters are participating throughout America, and some statistics indicate in greater percentages, really, in the South than in other parts of the country.
Coming on the heels of the removal of the discrimination in places of public accommodations, this bill, the very next year, eliminated the barriers to voting, so that all Americans could participate in the basic opportunities each of us has to go into an establishment of our choice--that decision having been made in 1964--and then to vote and to have an impact on elections--that decision having been made in 1965.
We have, of course, renewed the Voting Rights Act periodically since that time, overwhelmingly, and on a bipartisan basis, year after year after year because Members of Congress realize this is a piece of legislation which has worked. And one of my favorite sayings that many of us use from time to time is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. This a good piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years.
I had an opportunity, as many of us did, yesterday to meet with members of the NAACP--which happens to be meeting here in Washington, as we speak--from my State in my office. They were excited to be here. There were older people, middle-aged people, and younger people in this group, all of them thrilled to be in Washington and to be in Washington, potentially, at the same time this very important legislation is going to be reauthorized. We know the President will be speaking to the NAACP and will be signing the bill. We will be able to pass it here in the Senate in a few hours. And this landmark piece of legislation will continue to make a difference not only in the South but for all of America and for all of us, whether we are African Americans or not.
Mr. President, obviously, I rise today in support of this bill.
America's history is a story of ever-increasing freedom, hope, and opportunity for all. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represents one of this country's greatest steps forward in that story.
Our most basic founding ideal is that sovereignty flows up, from the people to their elected leaders. The governors must have the consent of the governed.
In order for that ideal to mean anything, every American must have freedom of political expression--including the free, unfettered right to vote.
But prior to the Voting Rights Act's passage, for far too many African Americans, America did not live up to its promise that ``all men are created equal.'' Many African Americans were denied the right to vote.
Thanks to brave men and women who held sit-ins at lunch counters, rode in Freedom Rides, marched in our Nation's capital, or simply refused to give up a seat on a bus, America was forced to look itself in the mirror, admit its failing, and recommit itself to its founding ideals.
I am especially proud to stand in support of the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act because, as I said, I was there when President Johnson signed the original Act in 1965.
I was overwhelmed to witness such a moment in history, and moved that my hero, Senator Cooper, at the spur of the moment, had brought me to witness it.
It fills me with personal pride that I can today carry on a small part of Senator Cooper's legacy by voting to reauthorize the bill he worked so hard and so courageously to pass 41 years ago.
The Voting Rights Act has proved to be a success for America. On March 15, 1965, President Johnson spoke before a joint session of Congress and challenged them to pass this historic legislation.
At that time, he said:
The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back ..... and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.
History has proven President Johnson correct. The Voting Rights Act brought about greater justice for all. And while we celebrate that achievement, we must continue to strive for more.
I know my colleagues will join me in recognizing that our country will and must continue its progress toward a society in which every person, of every background, can realize the American Dream. With the passage of this bill, we are reaffirming that Dream.
I believe I am safe in predicting this legislation will be approved overwhelmingly this afternoon, and it is something all Members of the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, can feel deeply proud of having accomplished.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
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Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I would simply add there is a general agreement among Senators on this point. If someone is saying the bill authorizes the Justice Department to block a voting change because of a perceived discriminatory purpose that does not violate the Constitution, I have not heard them say it. Therefore, the bill should not be construed to require the creation of any district other than the majority-minority district that would be created if race were not considered--that would be created if instead only traditional districting principles were applied. Certainly a constitutionally grounded approach does not--does not--require the creation of the maximum number of majority-minority or Democratic or, for that matter, Republican-leaning districts.
If those doing the redistricting refuse to create a naturally occurring majority-minority district, they are discriminating by race. But if they simply refuse to create a district where different races combine to elect a candidate of their preferred party, the discrimination is not against the races--it is hard to see how anyone could discriminate against both races by the same act--but rather it is against that party. And as unhappy as that party might be about being denied such a district, the denial does not violate the Constitution. Obviously, giving the Justice Department discretion to redefine what ``discriminatory purpose'' means would be controversial. This is consensus legislation precisely because it avoids such litigation traps. It enforces the Constitution's requirements and no more.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Arizona is recognized.
Mr. KYL. Mr. President, let me just say one final thing. I very much agree with Senator Hatch that the bill limits section 5, protecting those naturally occurring, compact majority-minority districts with which section 5 was originally concerned, and that nothing in this section of the act should be interpreted to require that the competitive position of the political party favored by minority voters be maintained or enhanced in any district. This change made by the bill is not intended to preserve or ensure the electability of candidates of any political party, even if that party's candidates are supported by members of minority groups.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Kentucky is recognized.
Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I agree very much, and I am glad that we can put this issue to bed.
By anchoring section 5 in the concept of ``preferred candidates of choice''--another term of art whose meaning is
cemented in the Supreme Court's precedents--I think this bill eliminates any risk that section 5 of the Voting Rights Act will be interpreted to protect coalitions and influence districts and other tools of purely partisan gerrymanders. The term ``preferred candidates of choice'' has a clear meaning in the court's precedents: Minority candidates elected by a minority community.
I think the use of this language eliminates the risk that courts will construe section 5 to protect candidates who rely on minority votes for their margin of victory in the general election but are not elected by a majority-minority district. And I agree that it may be good policy for a State to create districts in which different groups will combine to elect a common party candidate, but Federal law should not be used to require that the State permanently preserve such a district.