GOP plays down Sensenbrenner remarksA luncheon featuring black Republicans and top party officials Monday in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was intended to recognize history.
WASHINGTON — A luncheon featuring black Republicans and top party officials Monday in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was intended to recognize history.
Instead, in the words of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as he followed a longtime congressman and fellow Wisconsinite to the podium: “I think Jim Sensenbrenner just made some news.”
Sensenbrenner, who has represented southeastern Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District since 1979, broke from others’ laudatory remarks about the party of Lincoln’s civil rights record to vow to restore recently gutted provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act,” he said, referring to a Supreme Court decision in June that struck down key portions of the 1965 law, including a requirement for states with a history of voter suppression to obtain federal permission to change their voting laws.
Since the ruling, Republican-controlled legislatures in some of those states have moved quickly to enact stricter voting laws, such as voter ID.
“The first thing we have to do is take the monkey wrench that the court threw in it out of the Voting Rights Act, and then use that monkey wrench to be able to fix it so that it is alive, well, constitutional and impervious to another challenge that will be filed by the usual suspects,” Sensenbrenner said.
The congressman said he and a Democratic colleague, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — the last surviving civil rights leader to speak at the 1963 march — testified before the Senate in June on restoring the act. He didn’t give specifics of how he would do so, but said his legislation would have to be filed by the end of the year to be in effect for the next voting cycle.
At his turn at the mic, Priebus made little comment about Sensenbrenner’s remarks, except to note the news value, commenting, “Good job, Jim.”
On Tuesday, RNC spokesman Raffi Williams said Sensenbrenner wasn’t speaking for the party, which has no official stance on the changes in the law.
“It’s good to see the diversity in our party that Sensenbrenner spoke of,” Williams told the News Tribune, adding he couldn’t speak for Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner or predict how GOP members would respond to a bill.
Michael Misterek, a spokesman for Democrat Rick Nolan of Minnesota’s 8th District, said it would be premature to comment without seeing the language of the bill.
“But assuming it’s straightforward, he would be fully supportive of that idea,” he told the News Tribune.
A spokeswoman for Republican Sean Duffy of Wisconsin’s 7th District did not respond to a request for comment. Congress is in recess.
The Monday luncheon included black party officials and candidates, and Democratic former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, head of the Urban League, and NAACP Vice President Hilary Shelton. It was intended as an outreach to voters largely ignored by the GOP in the past two presidential elections.
Priebus said the party could afford to do so no longer, and that the events of 50 years ago deserved commemoration.
“A few weeks ago, (I said): ‘We need to be a part of this. We need to commemorate this historic day,’ ” he said, characterizing his critics as responding: “Well, how many people are going to come?”
“Look around (the room) — this is a complete and total blessing to our party,” he continued. “If the Republican Party is not going to fight like crazy for every single vote in this country, if it is not going to fight for the African-American vote, then guess what? The other side is just going to take it for granted.”
The GOP event was one of a week’s worth of commemorations of the 1963 march. Today, the exact anniversary, is expected to see the largest crowd, with presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter scheduled to give addresses at the Lincoln Memorial.
Williams said he was unsure whether high-ranking GOP leaders would do so.
“I know the chairman is not speaking beyond (the Monday event). I know neither Bush is speaking,” he said, adding he could not speak for the former presidents.
“The event (Monday) was another sign of the continuation of the Republican National Committee to enact our Growth and Opportunity Project to engage all Americans,” he said.