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Politics: Ossoff and Collins clash over her past support for voting rights legislation

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Ossoff and Collins clash over her past support for voting rights legislation © Al Drago/Pool via Associated Press/Greg Nash Ossoff and Collins clash over her past support for voting rights legislation

Freshman Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), who has kept a low profile for much of his first year in office, spoke up Thursday evening on the Senate floor to challenge Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) over what he characterized as her evolving position on voting rights legislation.

Ossoff, the youngest member of the Senate, made the bold move of tangling with Collins by suggesting she had flip-flopped on her support for the Voting Rights Act, an implication that Collins fiercely disputed as inaccurate in a tense back-and-forth between the two senators on the floor.

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Collins, a leading moderate who played a key role in negotiating last year's bipartisan infrastructure bill, is highly respected and known to be well-prepared for any debate. For this reason, colleagues usually avoid public clashes with her.

But Collins has also become a favorite target of progressives ever since she voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's highly controversial nominee, to the Supreme Court in 2018.

Ossoff on Thursday decided to take a shot at her and other senior Republicans over their past support for voting rights legislation.

He pointed out that Collins voted for a 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act but opposing a motion to proceed to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act last year.

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Collins made it clear she didn't appreciate Ossoff's arguments and warned he was at risk of violating the Senate's Rule XIX, which bars any senator from imputing "any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator."

But Ossoff didn't back down.

He challenged Collins's claim that the Voting Rights Act remains substantially intact because the Department of Justice can still challenge new voting laws on the basis that they improperly restrict civil rights.

He argued that a landmark Supreme Court case hollowed out the 1965 act by limiting the Justice Department's ability to block new voting restrictions before they go into effect.

"Abraham Lincoln must be turning in his grave to hear the senators from the Grand Old Party," Ossoff said in a provocative opening to his floor speech earlier in the evening, arguing that Senate Republicans today are "echoing" states' rights arguments "to oppose the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act."

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He noted that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was the only Republican to vote in November to proceed to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is intended to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act and reinstate parts of that law that were thrown out by the Supreme Court in its 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder.

Ossoff called out four Republican colleagues by name - something that senators usually avoid for fear of ruffling feathers - including Collins, for backing the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in the past but voting against proceeding to the Democrats' update to that bill.

He pointed out that Collins "previously said this bill will ensure that the voting rights afforded to all Americans are protected."

He argued it was hypocritical for Republicans to praise late Rep. John Lewis (R-Ga.) as a hero of the civil rights movement but oppose the voting rights reauthorization bill named after him.

"I speak for the state of Georgia when I say do not invoke Congressman Lewis's name to signal your virtue while you work to erode his legacy and defy his will," he said.

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That didn't sit with Collins who rose to rebut Ossoff later in the debate.

"I do support the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and I did so as did every other senator in 2006. But to equate that to the legislation that is before us now is simply not worthy," she shot back.

She raised Ossoff's young age and questioned if he even knew what he was talking about, pointing out that the voting rights legislation pending before the Senate Thursday is entirely different from the 1965 civil rights law.

"I'm not sure that the senator from Georgia was even born in 1965," she said. "I voted enthusiastically and I did say that about the Voting Rights Reauthorization in 2006 and surely my colleague is not confusing that bill, which was five pages long ... with the bill that is before the Senate tonight, which is 735 pages long."

But Ossoff argued that the voting rights reauthorization that Democrats introduced last year would restore the parts of 1965 law that were thrown out by the 2013 Supreme Court decision.

The court decided in Shelby County that local jurisdictions covered by the 1965 law no longer had to seek pre-clearance for changes to voting rules with the Justice Department.

"I believe more strongly than ever that pre-clearance is necessary," Ossoff said.

He made the case that the Department of Justice loses valuable time by having to wait until new voting laws are implemented before challenging them in court.

He insisted that he was not questioning Collins's "motives or integrity" but simply wanted to point out "what I believe to be an inconsistency, an inconsistency between voting consistently to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and lauding it as a signature civil right achievement but then voting not even to allow debate in this body on the legislation that was created to respond to the Supreme Court's invitation to uphold its pre-clearance provision."

Collins responded by saying her colleague was comparing apples to oranges.

"This is entirely different from a debate on a 735-page bill," she said.

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