Lawmakers Work Together to Renew Voting Rights Act

Key Democratic and Republican lawmakers pressing for speedy renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, including safeguards for minority and non-English speaking voters, say they are hoping for success as soon as this summer.

"We are going to get the job done and get it done soon this year with the president of the United States signing it," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "This issue transcends party lines."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the measure's sponsor in the House, said he wants to put a bill on President Bush's desk by the end of July.

The legislation is crucial to ensuring voting rights for all, including those who have limited English skills, Sensenbrenner said.

The law was originally crafted four decades ago to end racist practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests in Southern states, by imposing tighter guidelines.

Despite significant progress since the bill was last reauthorized by Congress in 1982, considerable problems remain, including barriers for non-English speakers, Sensenbrenner said.

"History since that time indicates that we still need the Voting Rights Act," said Sensenbrenner, who joined Kennedy on the conference call.

A Judiciary subcommittee has held 10 hearings and collected nearly 9,000 pages of testimony highlighting problems and abuses, he added.

In a rare show of unity, rival party leaders in Congress have pledged to work together to extend expiring provisions of the landmark legislation that sought to end discrimination against minority voters.

Partisan politics, however, are still in play on the bill this election year.

Democrats hope the measure can help them rally support from minorities, a core constituency. Republicans, meanwhile, will be able to cite their support for the voting rights measure to blunt charges they oppose minorities on issues such as immigration reform.

Despite the bipartisan harmony, some conservatives oppose requirements in the bill for bilingual interpreters and foreign language ballots at polling places where large numbers of citizens speak limited English.

Groups such as the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, meanwhile, support the new legislation.

"Renewing key protections in the bill is the highest priority of the civil rights community because discrimination still exists," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.