WASHINGTON -- Now that the Republicans in Congress no longer have George Bush's veto to sustain their longtime objections to extending the voting franchise, you would think they would take the smart political course and accept the inevitable. Instead they continue to fight motor-voter legislation that now appears greased for passage and quick signing by President Clinton.
As a result, fairly or not, they will be painted as the Grinches who tried to keep the voting lists down -- a role, incidentally, that the dour-faced, dour-sounding Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas is typecast for and plays to the hilt. After a presidential election year in which more voters cried out to be heard and involved, it is strange politics to appear to be against making it easier to vote -- especially when it seems certain it's going to happen anyway. Gramm insists, however, that the Republicans still have the votes to block it.
The bill is called motor-voter because its basic provision calls for registration in conjunction with the issuance of drivers' licenses. But there are several other provisions for registration by mail and in other government offices, such as those dispensing public welfare and unemployment benefits, which is the sticking point for Gramm.
It should be "obvious to a blind man," he says, that the Democrats want to include voter registration in the latter offices out of purely partisan politics. The implication is that folks on welfare or jobless can more easily be persuaded to vote the way their public benefactors -- usually Democrats -- want, or, as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona says, will be subject to "intimidation and coercion."
McCain also argues that passage of the federal legislation will impose unfair burdens on states such as his own that already have motor-voter registration. His office says that the election commissioner for Maricopa County (Phoenix) has calculated it would cost the county $900,000 to convert its current computerized system to meet the requirements of the federal registration.
The Democratic-controlled Senate has beaten back by basically a party-line vote an attempt by McCain to bar voter registration in welfare and unemployment offices except for the disabled. It has also rejected a Republican attempt to hold up implementation of the bill once passed until Congress has voted funds to reimburse states for the costs of compliance.
The House has already passed a bill similar to the Senate's, and these votes are seen as tip-offs of Senate passage once some other amendments the Republicans want to offer are disposed of.
The motor-voter legislation is considered one of the easy opportunities for President Clinton to demonstrate that his election meant the end of congressional gridlock.
While such Republicans as Gramm argue that the new legislation will simply fatten the voter rolls to the advantage of the Democrats, who historically do better among lower-income voters, some say that motor-voter legislation simply is not effective enough to warrant the trouble, and the additional costs they say will be imposed on the states.
McCain's office says four states now have their own motor-voter laws that meet the requirements of the proposed federal law, and that only two of them -- Minnesota and Iowa -- have registration rates that substantially exceed the national average of 65 percent of persons eligible to vote.
But the House elections subcommittee (Democratic-controlled) says there are nine such "model states" and all but one of them far surpass the national average, ranging from 73.2 percent in North Carolina to 90.4 percent in Montana.
Altogether, 27 states have some form of motor-voter registration. McCain's Arizona has 68 percent registration with a motor-voter law that meets some but not all of the proposed federal requirements.
The arguments against the proposed federal law do not, however, change the politics -- that the Republicans in objecting to it are casting themselves as villains in what appears this year to be a lost cause.
After 12 years with a Republican president in the driver's seat, they find themselves playing the role of back-seat driver, with all its customary control of the vehicle.