What will Eric Cantor do about the Voting Rights Act?

Now that the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc and Anthony Kennedy have neutered the Voting Rights Act, the question is whether Congress will step in to create new standards for enforcement. If it does, that would put Eric Cantor, the House majority leader and the only Jewish Republican in Congress, in a very interesting and influential position.

It’s hard to imagine any new legislation being pushed through without Cantor’s support. At the same time, he has the leadership and regional standing to provide cover to (and put pressure on) other Republicans to back new legislation.

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While Cantor has been seen as blocking various efforts by House Speaker John Boehner to reach budget deals with the White House, there are reasons to think he might want to play a different kid of role on this issue.

Cantor was among the 192 Republicans who voted in 2006 to reauthorize the landmark piece of legislation — even though his home state (Virginia) was one of those required to seek Justice Department approval for any changes in their voting laws, due to their history of discrimination.

Unlike some GOP lawmakers, he hasn’t exactly taken a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to civil rights issues. Just last year, he gave an interesting non-answer to a question about anti-Semitism in the Republican conference. And his statement in response to the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act signaled a similar willingness to wrestle with these sorts of issues:

“My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all. I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

Bottom line: We don’t know yet whether Cantor will back new legislation. But he’s arguably the most important lawmaker to watch on the issue.

Ami Eden is JTA’s CEO and editor in chief, responsible for overseeing all aspects of the agency’s operations, including editorial, business, marketing and fundraising. Before joining JTA in the summer of 2007, he served as executive editor of the Forward newspaper and the founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward Web site. He also worked as an editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.