The Voting Rights Act, which has protected minority voters from discrimination since its passage more than 40 years ago, appeared headed for an easy reaffirmation in the House on Wednesday -- until conflicts old and new clouded its future.
Amid wide bipartisan support -- the House Judiciary Committee approved the measure last month by a 33-1 vote -- Republican leaders scheduled a floor debate, hoping to use the bill’s passage for an election-year outreach to minority voters. The landmark legislation is due to expire next year, and advocacy groups have been pressing for its renewal for another 25 years.
But in a private morning meeting, Republicans raised objections that forced House leaders to yank the bill from the floor.
One concern had its roots in the bill’s origins. The legislation requires nine states with a documented history of discrimination against black voters -- such as poll taxes and literacy tests -- to get Justice Department approval for their election laws.
Another objection, a spillover from the contentious debate on immigration, had to do with requirements in some states for ballots printed in several languages and the presence of interpreters at polling places where large numbers of citizens speak limited English.
Some members of the Republican caucus also suggested delaying the debate until the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a controversial 2003 Texas redistricting case. That decision, expected in the next two weeks, will examine the issue of whether Latino voters were disenfranchised.
Whatever the fuel, Wednesday’s delay set off a series of brush fires on Capitol Hill.
“It was heated,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), who supports an amendment by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to end a requirement for bilingual ballots in jurisdictions where at least 5% of the population speaks a language other than English. “I’ve been in meetings for two hours. There are meetings going on all over the Hill.”
Officially, House Republican leaders said in a statement that they were “committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible.” Unofficially, some aides said the leadership might schedule the vote again after the July 4 recess.
Although dismayed by the delay, Democrats seized the chance to spotlight the rare public dissension in Republican ranks.
“I hope that the Republicans will be able to quickly resolve their differences and that the Congress will be able to pass this vital legislation,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “It is critical that we do so as soon as possible, because our democracy depends on protecting the right of every American citizen to vote.”
“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 sites of seminal events in the civil rights movement that produced the bill in 1965. “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.”
Part of the problem, according to some GOP congressional aides, was that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), was unavailable to answer questions and allay concerns. In addition, they said, he consulted more often with his Senate counterparts than with members of his own party during deliberations over the bill.
In a statement issued later Wednesday, Sensenbrenner defended both the bill and the process. “Some members, whom I believe are misinformed, have expressed concerns about voting on this legislation now,” he said.
Noting that the committee has held 12 hearings and amassed more than 12,000 pages of testimony, Sensenbrenner said the bill was one Republicans and Democrats could be “proud of because it ensures that when discriminatory practices of the past resurface, they are quickly put to rest. I hope the House leadership will bring [the bill] to the floor in the near future.”
Sensenbrenner thinks opponents “keep moving the goal post,” said an aide who asked not to be identified. Some of the issues being raised -- such as bilingual ballots -- first came up in committee, where efforts to change them were defeated, the aide said.
The House delay could complicate matters in the Senate, where Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had planned to bring up an identical bill next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The effort to amend the requirement that nine states clear election laws with the Justice Department was led by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.). The requirement, he argued, unfairly singled out Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Others saw the vote as a vehicle to address the growing language gap in American culture. After waking up to headlines suggesting that House leaders were delaying President Bush’s push to overhaul immigration laws, Garrett said he hit the telephones to rouse his constituents.
“I’ve been on the talk radio circuit in the last 24 hours just to get the message out to let their representatives know how they feel,” he said. “If we have until after the Fourth, the issue will resonate with the base.”
Minority and advocacy groups will also likely rally in coming weeks.
“The notion that a handful of Republicans from Southern states can rally enough support to hijack reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act is a slap in the face,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). “This delay is inexcusable.”