WASHINGTON -- In an intensely competitive election year, this was supposed to be the issue virtually everyone in Congress could agree on: renewing civil rights-era laws protecting minorities' access to the ballot box.
But on the cusp of a scheduled vote tomorrow that White House strategists and other top Republicans once hoped would symbolize a modern-day GOP eager to attract more blacks and Latinos, a group of increasingly vocal Capitol Hill conservatives is staging a revolt - arguing that certain provisions of the law are out of sync with party principles and insulting to the South.
The result is another emotional standoff within a GOP already fractured over how to deal with illegal immigration. As in the battle over immigration policy, the flap over the Voting Rights Act pits the "big-tent" political aims of President Bush's closest political advisors against conservatives who argue they are being asked to vote against their values.
And the dispute is erupting as White House officials are deciding whether Bush should make his first speech since taking office this weekend to the NAACP, the nation's oldest and biggest civil rights organization.
Yesterday, Republican leaders were waging a fierce behind-the-scenes fight to convince recalcitrant conservatives that backing the act would benefit the party. But the conservatives weren't buying the argument, pressing their belief that Congress should change sections that impose federal oversight of states with histories of institutional racism and that require bilingual ballots.
A two-hour meeting among House leaders, GOP strategists and the law's critics failed to resolve the disagreement, leading some to question whether the House would go ahead with its vote tomorrow. A postponement would be the second time within a month the vote had been delayed.
"I want this bill finished this week," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters after the meeting. "But to tell you everything is settled and everyone is happy would not be the truth."
If the vote does not occur by the time thousands gather Saturday in Washington for the NAACP convention, group leaders who have forged closer ties with the White House in recent months would find themselves once again at odds with Republicans.
Even the critics of the voting rights provisions concede they are unlikely to win changes to the law. But the mere existence of another racially sensitive debate within the GOP has the potential to complicate the party's election-year message.
Both Bush and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman have called repeatedly for the 41-year-old Voting Rights Act to be renewed. The law requires a vote by 2007, but White House strategists wanted to make its renewal part of an outreach plan this year that features black Republicans running for high offices in Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Bush and Mehlman have called the Voting Rights Act the "crown jewel" of the nation's civil rights laws. Three months ago, leading Republicans such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin stood side-by-side with liberal Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to back the law's renewal.
But the lawmakers complicating the push for renewal assert that Bush and the other top Republicans are pursuing voters at the expense of conservative ideals.
"The party is engaged in group politics," said Rep. Steve King, Republican of Iowa. "I reject the idea of doing that. We are all created in God's image. He draws no distinction between race, skin color or national origin. It's an insult to him for us to do so in our public policy in America."
King, backed by almost 80 fellow conservatives, has focused his efforts on fighting the requirement for bilingual ballots in districts where a certain percentage of citizens speak limited English.
He said he also agrees with those conservatives seeking changes to the provision that requires the U.S. Justice Department to screen state and local voting-related decisions in certain communities - mostly in the South - to ensure that the new rules do not harm the rights of minorities. The proposed change would make it easier for the communities to win exemptions from the federal oversight.
Civil rights leaders argue that the areas that receive special screening were selected because they were notorious for institutionalized racism, such as adopting laws designed to prevent blacks from voting.
One of the conservatives championing changes to the Voting Rights Act said GOP leaders are "playing politics" with a law that is unfairly targeting his home region because of its past - and failing to account for progress in racial relations.
"Do you think we treat Japan or Germany differently" because of World War II, asked Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican. "Do we treat the British any differently because of the Stamp Act? If we're going to do that, then let's go back to the Indians and say they butchered Custer."
Peter Wallsten and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.