House OKs voting act renewal

July 14, 2006|By JOHANNA NEUMAN | JOHANNA NEUMAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly approved yesterday a 25-year renewal of the landmark Voting Rights Act, but only after a cadre of Republican conservatives defied party leaders by pressing ahead with unsuccessful - and controversial - efforts to revise the measure.

Their attempts to modify what is often called "the crown jewel" of the civil rights movement included shortening the bill's life and repealing its requirement that bilingual ballots be provided to minority voters.

The modifications, derided by the bill's sponsors as "stabbing the Voting Rights Act in the heart," were defeated only because of an unusual coalition between virtually all of the chamber's 201 Democrats and its Republican leaders.

"Republicans and Democrats have united in a historic vote to preserve and protect one of America's most important fundamental rights - the right to vote," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement after the 390-33 vote, without mentioning that a majority of Republicans voted for most of the efforts to modify the law.

The rare public display of GOP dissension was a blow to Republican strategists at the White House, who had hoped an election-year renewal of the act would boost the party's appeal to minority voters in the fall elections. The bill still faces turmoil in the Senate. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said he wanted the committee to consider the bill Wednesday, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has not scheduled floor action. In addition, some senators, like Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, are echoing some of the concerns raised by their House counterparts.

The all-day House debate was emotional, resonating with the echoes of the nation's violent history of voter discrimination.

"I was beaten, I have a concussion, I almost died," said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, holding up a photograph of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., where state troopers attacked protesters with fire hoses and beat them with batons. "I gave a little blood, but some of my colleagues gave their very lives."

But those who wanted to modify the law's expiring features - including a requirement for Justice Department oversight of voting laws in states, most of them southern, with a history of discrimination - argued that the South had been punished enough.

"The House is voting today to keep my state in the penalty box for 25 more years based on the actions of people who are now dead," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican, who urged changes that would have made it easier for states and cities to be exempted.

In the initial decades after the Civil War, African-Americans voted in record numbers. But in the first years of the 20th century, as lynching grew, so did state-sanctioned poll taxes, literacy taxes and even violence against blacks who attempted to register to vote. Only after the civil rights movement of the 1960s - including the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 - did African-Americans again vote in great numbers.

Opponents argued that Florida and Ohio, infamous for electoral irregularities in the last few years, should also be required to clear their voting law changes with the Justice Department. Otherwise, they said, the law unfairly targets the South for its history, not its present record.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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