WASHINGTON—Renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which eliminated many anti-Black voting practices in Mississippi and other states, suffered a setback last week when House Republicans disagreed on whether to require bilingual ballots and federal oversight of Southern states.
The dissension in a closed caucus meeting grew so intense it forced Republican leaders to postpone indefinitely a scheduled vote on renewing the act.
It was the second time in just over a week that House GOP leaders stalled action on priorities — immigration overhaul was the other — on their election-year agenda.
On the voting rights bill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and three other leaders only promised a vote on the renewal "as soon as possible." The uncertainty in the House led Senate schedulers to hold off on a plan to advance an identical bill next week.
"Apparently, the leadership of the Republican Party cannot bring its own rank-and-file members into line to support the Voting Rights Act," said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., who represents Selma and Birmingham, the heart of the civil rights movement.
"That ought to be a significant embarrassment as they fan around the country trying to skim off a few Black votes in the next four months," Davis said.
House Republican leaders said the postponement reflects their effort to respond to dissenting GOP lawmakers. They noted that the temporary provisions of the act do not expire until 2007.
"We have time to address their concerns," Republican leaders said in a joint statement. "Therefore, the House Republican Leadership will offer members the time needed to evaluate the legislation."
Several Republicans, many from Southern states, complained at the meeting that the renewal unfairly singled out nine states for federal oversight, without according them credit for making strides against discriminatory voting practices in their pasts.
Republican dissenters also wanted to chip away at a part of the act that requires ballots printed in several languages in districts with large populations of immigrants.
However, Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., called that logic an effort to mix the divisive debate over immigration reform with the Voting Rights Act renewal. Three-fourths of those whose primary language is not English are American-born, he said.
"The speaker's had a standing rule that nothing would be voted on unless there's a majority of the majority," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who led the objections. "It was pretty clear at the meeting that the majority of the majority wasn't there."
Overwhelming bipartisan support for the renewal, from Hastert on down the leadership hierarchy, stems from the strides the original act has made toward stamping out discriminatory voting practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests. The act also gave the federal government tools to find and stop discrimination at the polls.
But a dozen House hearings have demonstrated that discrimination still exists, according to the Sensenbrenner. He and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, insisted that the measure be passed by the House without any changes.
Several Republicans, led by Westmoreland, had worked to allow an amendment that would ease a requirement that nine states win permission from the Justice Department or a federal judge to change their voting rules.
The amendment's backers say the requirement unfairly singles out and holds accountable nine states that practiced racist voting policies decades ago, based on 1964 voter turnout data: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Westmoreland said the formula for deciding which states are subject to such "pre-clearance" should be updated every four years and be based on voter turnout in the most recent three elections.
"The pre-clearance portions of the Voting Rights Act should apply to all states, or no states," Westmoreland said. "Singling out certain states for special scrutiny no longer makes sense."
The amendment has powerful opponents.
"This carefully crafted legislation should remain clean and unamended," said Conyers, who worked on the original bill, which he called "the keystone of our national civil rights statutes."
By his own estimation, Westmoreland said the amendment stands little chance of being adopted.
The House also could bring up an amendment that would require the Justice Department to compile an annual list of jurisdictions eligible for a "bailout" from the pre-clearance requirements.
That amendment, too, has little chance of surviving floor debate.
— The Associated Press