WASHINGTON – The House voted Thursday to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rejecting efforts by Southern conservatives to relax federal oversight of their states in a debate haunted by the ghosts of the civil rights movement.
The 390-33 vote sent to the Senate a bill that represented a Republican appeal to minority voters who doubt the GOP's "big-tent" image. Southern conservatives had complained that the act punishes their states for racist voting histories they say they've overcome.
"By passing this rewrite of the Voting Rights Act, Congress is declaring from on high that states with voting problems 40 years ago can simply never be forgiven," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., one of several lawmakers pressing for changes to the law to ease its requirements on Southern states.
The House overwhelmingly rejected amendments that would have shortened the renewal from 25 years to a decade and would have struck its requirement that ballots in some states be printed in several languages.
Supporters of the law as written called the amendments "poison pills" designed to kill the renewal because if any were adopted by the full House, the underlying renewal might have failed.
Supporters used stark images and emotional language to make clear that the pain of racial struggle — and racist voting practices — still stings.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., displayed photos of civil rights activists, including himself, who were beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1965 as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights.
"I have a concussion. I almost died. I gave blood; some of my colleagues gave their very lives," Lewis shouted from the House floor, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson, another veteran of the civil rights movement, looked on from the gallery.
"Yes, we've made some progress; we have come a distance," Lewis added. "The sad truth is, discrimination still exists. That's why we still need the Voting Rights Act and we must not go back to the dark past."
The very debate over changes to the act is testament to the influence of Southern conservatives, even over their own GOP leaders who had hoped to pass the renewal as a fresh appeal for support from minorities on Election Day.
With rare bipartisan support among leaders of the House and Senate, the renewal was widely expected to sail through Congress and on to the White House for President Bush's signature.
Republican leaders, however, were forced to cancel a House vote last month when conservatives rebelled during a closed meeting against provisions they contended singled out Southern states for federal oversight despite the civil rights progress they had made in recent years.
Unable to satisfy the dissenters and eager to pass the bill this week, Republican leaders announced late Wednesday they would allow the House to consider amendments, none of which passed.
The amendment that would have extended the act for a decade, rather than the 25 years in the bill, was rejected 288-134. The proposal to strike requirements in the law that ballots in districts with large populations of non-English speakers be printed in other languages failed 238-185.
"What unites us? It's our language, the English language," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. Without the amendment, the act is "hurting America by making it easier not to learn English."
Democrats made clear early in the day they would vote against the renewal if any of the amendments were added.
"Any one of them would be a weakening of the Voting Rights Act," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
The White House also weighed in during the debate, saying in a statement that the Bush administration "supports the intent" of the renewal. The statement did not take a position on the amendments proposed by lawmakers who represented the GOP's conservative base.
Their objections to the renewal already were being echoed by some Senate colleagues from the same states.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., noted that the act doesn't expire until next year.
"It's 13 months away and we're creating a political situation that doesn't need to be created," Coburn said in an interview. He said changes such as those proposed by the House amendments needed time for consideration.
"For them, this is not a debate about fairness, it is about ideology. Ideology has no place in today's debate," Hastings said. "We should do this not for the partisan benefit but because, as John Kennedy said, it is right."