The move by House Democratic leaders to fast-track a defense policy bill without tackling voting rights has ruffled some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who saw the must-pass Pentagon package as their last best chance to address election protections for several years to come.

The critics are grumbling that party leaders simply haven’t been aggressive enough in efforts to force the Senate to adopt the various voting rights bills passed by the House this Congress. Some are also suggesting that leadership has taken their support for granted. 

“It seems like the Black caucus has always supported leadership in what it’s tried to do, but leadership of this caucus hasn’t returned the favor, always,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a member of both the Black caucus and the liberal “squad.” He added, “And so now we’re in a precarious position where voting rights will continue to be under attack — state to state — will continue to be gutted.”

At issue was the fate of legislation — named after the civil rights icon and late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — to restore those parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act nullified by the Supreme Court in 2013. House Democrats had passed the bill this Congress, but it was blocked in the Senate, where GOP support is needed to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold. 

In an effort to break through that resistance, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), had pressed Democratic leaders this week to pair the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — an annual, must-pass bill governing Pentagon spending — with the John Lewis bill. And as leverage, members of the CBC had threatened to vote against the rule underlying the NDAA unless the election reforms were somehow attached.

Because House Republicans, as a rule, vote against Democratic rules even if they support the bills themselves, the CBC opposition would have likely stopped the popular, bipartisan defense bill in its tracks.

“OK, you want the NDAA to pass? You need our support on that,” said Bowman, describing the strategy. “We need your support on voting rights in the Senate. Give us your support.’” 

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), another member of the Black caucus, acknowledged the gambit was a long shot, but argued the high stakes justified the effort. The House will revert to Republican control in January, likely putting any voting rights push on ice for at least two years. 

“This is our last opportunity to do something. So the thinking is that we’ll take it as far as we can to try to get it passed,” Johnson said. 

“The fundamental right to vote transcends our yearly NDAA authorization. Both are important, but to Black people on the precipice of possibly being denied the full and fair opportunity to vote by a right-right, extremist, MAGA Supreme Court — I mean, we’re looking at that,” he continued. “That hurts us more than Congress’s inability to pass an NDAA.”

The CBC’s pressure campaign put Democratic leaders in a bind: The House couldn’t pass the NDAA rule without the voting rights provision, but the Senate would reject the NDAA unless the election reforms were gone.

In response, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team used a procedural gambit, known as the suspension calendar, allowing the NDAA to get a vote on the floor without a rule. Because an overwhelming majority of lawmakers in both parties supported the NDAA, they bet it could win the two-thirds majority required of suspension votes. 

They were right. 

The measure passed easily Thursday afternoon, by a tally of 350 to 80. Most CBC members supported the bill, including Beatty, who took a victory lap for highlighting the voting rights issue as a final act of her tenure at the top of the CBC. 

“Our efforts were never about stopping the NDAA but standing up for voting rights that have been under attack by Republicans,” Beatty said in a statement.

Still, the effort delayed the vote on the NDAA, which was initially scheduled to hit the floor Wednesday night, and irked a number of Democratic lawmakers — leaders and rank-and-file members alike — who were hoping for a smooth vote on a popular defense bill.

“Everybody wants to see if they can change things at the last minute,” a frustrated Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chair of the Rules Committee, said Wednesday night amid the impasse. 

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) was even more blunt.  

“My sense is a lot of people are hitting their heads against the wall on this one,” he said. 

Still, many CBC members defended Beatty’s efforts, noting that the very same day she forced the NDAA delay, the Supreme Court was weighing yet another high-profile election case that could grant state legislators broad powers to set voting rules — and have outsized consequences for minority voters. Most trained their criticisms on Senate Republicans for blocking the John Lewis bill and other voter protections. 

“The Senate of this time will be known to have stood in the way of righteous legislation that would assure less voter suppression in our great country,” said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), another CBC member. “Until we pass it, we have a duty to use all lawful and procedural methodologies available to us to get it done.” 

In the eyes of liberals like Bowman, however, much of the blame falls on Democratic leaders, who have leaned heavily on the CBC to pass major parts of President Biden’s agenda — notably, Beatty helped break the impasse over a massive infrastructure bill last year — while top CBC priorities like voting rights and police reform have languished in the Senate. He’s hoping the group plays hardball in the next Congress. 

“This has been a consistent back-and-forth with leadership throughout this Congress, right? It’s been asking the CBC to get its back,” Bowman said. “So we just, as a caucus, have to flex our muscles a bit and say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to support bill X, Y or Z if we don’t get concessions on things that are most important to our community and to the country.”