The Supreme Court didn’t overturn the entire Voting Rights Act in its Tuesday ruling, but it did say that if lawmakers want to keep using it, Congress will have to update it for the 21st century.
But that throws the problem over to a legislature that has had trouble passing the most basic spending bills to keep the government open — and leaving analysts wondering whether there’s any chance Capitol Hill will be able to reach agreement on the thorny issues of race and discrimination.
Indeed, the early signs aren’t encouraging.
Within two hours of the court’s ruling, Democrats from President Obama to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a key committee chairman, had said Congress must take the court up on its invitation to act.
But there was almost complete silence from House Republicans.
“As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
House Speaker John A. Boehner deferred to his committee chairman, who gave little indication they see the need for action. And Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who spearheaded renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, was silent, with his office not responding to requests for comment.
In Tuesday’s 5-4 ruling Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said Congress retains the power to demand states and localities prove their voting laws won’t have a disparate impact on racial minorities. But he said the formula Congress has relied on for the past four decades to decide who has to go through special scrutiny is outdated.
The chief justice invited Congress to try again — but in the meantime, analysts said, it appears the Justice Department will be without a major tool it has used.
The decision sparked vehement protests from civil rights groups, which said discrimination still happens in voting laws.
Leaders of black organizations said they’ll ramp up pressure on Congress to take up the chief justice’s offer to rewrite the formula to decide who faces special scrutiny.
“The ball’s in Congress’ court, and the ball’s in our court,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
J. Gerald Hebert, a voting rights lawyer, said he sees some reasons for optimism in the history of the Voting Rights Act, which passed in 1965 but was renewed in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006 — all of those under Republican presidents. And that final renewal happened when Republicans controlled the House and Senate.
Mr. Hebert also pointed to the overwhelming votes in that 2006 Congress, and said many of those lawmakers are still here.
“I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do think there’s a good chance leadership in the House and the Senate will pass legislation that takes into account the court’s decision today,” he said.
For now, Democrats are already ramping up their campaign options. Congressional Democrats sent out a fundraising appeal Tuesday using the decision to ask supporters to “chip in $3 immediately to help us pressure Republicans in Congress to take action to protect voting rights.”