Civil rights groups see a chance to make important gains during the next two years with the new dynamics in Congress. In a letter earlier this month to members of the House and Senate, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights outlined 16 key issues that the 200-member civil and human rights coalition plans to win.

To galvanize grassroots support for a 2007 Civil Rights Agenda, LCCR held a national conference call with 300 people from 38 states. Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Senate’s second ranking Democrat, joined the call.

Speakers noted that substantial ground in the fight for equality has been lost over the last six years. The Supreme Court has weakened protections. The Justice Department has prioritized cases that defend majority, not minority, populations. Bills that help combat hate crimes based on gender, sexual orientation or disability have passed both the House and Senate, yet final legislation has been blocked in Republican-controlled joint committees.

With the new Democrat-controlled Congress comes new hope and expectations. Incoming House and Senate key committee chairs earned “A”s and “B”s on the NAACP’s report card while the same committees under Republican control earned “F”s. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus chair some of these committees.

Wade Henderson, LCCR president, hailed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act last summer as a springboard to more gains, including on labor’s right to organize and disability issues. “The civil and human rights communities want to use the next two years to gain ground that’s been lost over the last years,” he said.

He said the number one issue for the civil rights community is winning back that ground and ensuring the nation’s civil rights laws are fully enforced.

Nancy Zerkin, LCCR public policy director, said important issues are in the balance on federal, state and local levels. With the Nov. 7 approval of an anti-affirmative-action proposal in Michigan, she said, “states will be more of a battleground in an effort to protect affirmative action.” On the federal level, she said, another Supreme Court vacancy “still looms.”

Zerkin said the minimum wage increase in the Democrats’ “first 100 hours” program — passed in the House and now before the Senate — is part of the civil rights agenda, as is prohibiting discrimination in hiring based on sexual orientation and repealing the Real ID Act, which requires photo identification to vote.

“Voter ID requirements affect all voters,” said National Council of La Raza President Cecilia Munoz. “It was passed to go after a fraud problem that doesn’t exist,” she said referring to the mythology that undocumented immigrants are voting. “It was aimed at immigrants but hits a broad cross-section of the population.”

The intersection of poverty and race, as exposed through Hurricane Katrina shows how important it is to take a comprehensive look at civil rights, said Julie Fernandez, a senior policy analyst for LCCR. “We hope Congress is willing to look comprehensively at this.”

When Sen. Durbin joined the call he emphasized that the Democratic-led Congress will hold the administration accountable on civil rights and not be a rubber stamp. “For the first time in six years Congress is involved and will play offense when it comes to civil rights,” he said. “We will stop those that will do harm.” He pledged to pass hate crimes legislation, comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship and measures to strengthen public education — all on the LCCR’s top 16 list. However, Durbin cautioned, Senate Democrats have 51 votes, but “it takes 60 votes to do anything.”

A “sleeper civil rights issue” for today, Henderson said, is voting rights for District of Columbia residents.

“D.C. residents pay taxes, send their sons and daughters to fight, and sometimes die for this country. We have all the responsibilities yet no voice in the House and Senate,” said Henderson, who is from Washington, a majority African American city. This “taxation without representation” is “one of the most important civil rights issue around,” he said. On April 16, DC Emancipation Day, LCCR and other groups will rally and press Capitol Hill to pass the D.C. Voting Rights Act, introduced Jan. 19 by D.C.’s House delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

LCCR’s legislative priorities also include improving and enforcing voting rights, electoral reform, passing the Employee Free Choice Act, enforcing fair housing laws, ending predatory lending, closing the digital divide, improving access to quality health care and fully funding the Census Bureau.

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