By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006
House leaders abruptly canceled a vote to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act yesterday after rank-and-file Republicans revolted over provisions that require bilingual ballots in many places and continued federal oversight of voting practices in Southern states.
The intensity of the complaints, raised in a closed meeting of GOP lawmakers, surprised Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his lieutenants, who thought the path was clear to renew the act's key provisions for 25 years. The act is widely considered a civil rights landmark that helped thousands of African Americans gain access to the ballot box. Its renewal seemed assured when House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders embraced it in a May 2 kickoff on the Capitol steps.
But many Southerners feel the law has achieved its purpose and become more nuisance than necessity in several respects. They have aired those arguments for years, but yesterday they got a boost from Republicans scattered throughout the nation who are increasingly raising a different concern: They insist that immigrants learn and use English.
Hastert's office said the Republican leadership "is committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible." Several House members, acknowledging that the GOP leadership had been caught flat-footed by the intraparty ruckus, said it was unclear whether the issue will be revisited before the week-long Independence Day recess.
The postponed vote is the latest example of divisions within the GOP that have complicated House and Senate leaders' efforts to move legislation backed by President Bush. Social Security revisions died in 2005, and a proposed overhaul of immigration laws is in peril despite the backing of Bush, who also supports extension of the Voting Rights Act.
The immigration debate, which has preoccupied Congress for much of the year, included complaints that too many immigrants fail to learn English; the Senate version of the legislation declared English the "national language." House GOP leaders said the issues are unrelated, because only those immigrants who have become U.S. citizens are allowed to vote, while the immigration debate focuses on illegal immigrants.
But nearly 80 House Republicans signed a letter by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) objecting to the Voting Rights Act's provisions that require state and local governments to print ballots in foreign languages -- or provide interpreters -- in precincts showing a need for such services. The requirement is a costly unfunded mandate for many counties and municipalities, the letter said, adding: "The multilingual ballot mandate encourages the linguistic division of our nation and contradicts the 'Melting Pot' ideal that has made us the most successful multi-ethnic nation on earth."
The Voting Rights Act requires Justice Department preapproval of changes in voting practices in states that used techniques such as poll taxes or literacy tests to discourage blacks from voting in the 1960s. Some Republicans in Georgia, Texas and other states say such efforts to disenfranchise minorities disappeared long ago, and that continued coverage by the act is an unfair stigma.
Georgia has nine statewide elected black officials and other proof of ample minority participation in electoral politics, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said in an interview. "If you move a polling place from the Baptist church to the Methodist church, you've got to go through the Justice Department," he said.
But Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said a bipartisan commission found evidence of recent voting rights violations in Georgia, Texas and several other states. "These are not states that can say their hands are clean," she said.
The House Rules Committee had agreed to let Georgia lawmakers offer two amendments that would make it easier for states to become exempt from the Voting Rights Act. House leaders had expressed confidence that the amendments would fail. But the committee rejected King's request for an amendment to end the multilingual requirements.
That was "a gigantic mistake," said Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (R-Ga.), a leading critic of the act's renewal. "What people are really upset about is bilingual ballots," he said. "The American people want this to be an English-speaking nation."
GOP aides said the Norwood-King contingent was angry that House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) -- whose panel held hearings on the proposed renewal -- left yesterday's closed meeting without taking their questions.
House Democrats blamed GOP leaders for the bill's troubles. "Clearly, there are some on the Republican side who object to this legislation, and they forced the leadership's hand today," said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "House Democrats stand in virtual unanimous support for this important bill."
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in a statement, "We are extremely disappointed that the House did not vote today to renew and restore the Voting Rights Act because a small band of miscreants, at the last moment, hijacked this bipartisan, bicameral bill."