Immigration Now, Civil Rights Then, and the Dilemma of Joe Heck

As the Civil Rights Act turns 50, what can history teach us about crossing partisan lines?

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Republican Representative Joe Heck of Nevada says he supports immigration reform. Several times, he has called on Speaker of the House John Boehner to act. But Boehner won’t move the bill, which passed the Senate more than a year ago, forward. Most House Democrats have signed a “discharge petition” to force action, and they’re looking for some majority Republicans to join them. Heck would seem a good candidate, but so far he’s refused to sign on to help the bill escape Boehner’s dungeon.

Heck says he opposes parts of the bill, which is fair enough, but he may be letting his vision of the perfect be the enemy of the good. Senator Harry Reid and Heck’s general election opponent, Erin Bilbray, have blistered him for not doing more, and political commentator Steve Sebelius has pointed out that Heck could try to gather Republican support to force Boehner’s hand; he could also make speeches and generally flood the media.

But Heck is in a heck of a spot. Boehner is invoking the “Hastert Rule,” which states Republicans won’t bring a bill to a vote unless a majority of the caucus supports it. Boehner violated the rule once to raise the debt ceiling, but Republicans were fine with it because they could have their cake (avoid default) and eat it (go home and say they voted against something President Obama wanted).

Also, Republicans figure to control the House for the foreseeable future, thanks to the 2010 midterms, which installed GOP governors and legislatures in time for redistricting while Democrats slept at the switch. Republicans are split every imaginable way on immigration, and while Boehner probably wouldn’t welcome apostasy from Heck, Tea Partiers would never forgive him—and whatever their voting numbers, their ideology drives the GOP.

But Heck might learn from something that happened half a century ago on July 2—the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and from the way Nevadans dealt with it. The bill passed with Republican support. Southern Democrats almost unanimously opposed it. The key chamber that time was the Senate, where it took 67 votes for “cloture” to bring a bill to the floor (unlike today’s requirement of 60 votes, which has made Reid’s life so, um, easy).

President Lyndon B. Johnson knew he couldn’t have pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress without support from Republicans, especially Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Today, Dirksen—whose love of oratory earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Ooze”—is remembered more for that support than for his more partisan escapades.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s senior senator, Alan Bible, voted against bringing the bill to the floor. A Democrat, Bible was close to many of the Southerners, who had often helped him battle federal actions that might interfere with gambling or mining. Bible’s Nevada colleague, Democrat Howard Cannon, was also friendly with the Southerners.

Both Bible and Cannon also were tight with LBJ, who was twisting every arm in sight for the bill. Cannon didn’t have a strong civil rights record, and he faced a tough re-election fight against Republican Paul Laxalt. But in the end, he sided with Johnson and voted for cloture, which was approved, 71-29—thus allowing, by a mere four votes, the civil rights bill to come up for a vote. Both Cannon and Bible voted for the final bill, which needed only a simple majority.

In the House, Nevada’s lone representative, Democrat Walter Baring, had broken with his party over its alleged communism; he fought LBJ’s Great Society and liked to talk about fluoridated drinking water. He voted against the bill, which passed 289-126.

Democrats and Republicans supported the bill almost equally, with Southern Democrats leading the opposition in the House of Representatives. Many of those House Democrats later became the heart of their region’s GOP.

The message for Heck? Well, there’s something to be said for the Dirksen legacy, in which one gutsy action helped shape our perception of the man. And in political terms, there’s this: Cannon won re-election by 84 votes, thanks in significant part to support from West Las Vegas.

On the other hand, Nevadans were so “upset” with Baring over his break with the Democratic party that they re-elected him only four more times.

He finally lost in the 1972 primary to Jim Bilbray—the father of Heck’s opponent.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.