House May Chill Bush's Wooing of Latino Voters

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

By pushing English-only policies and tough measures against illegal immigrants, House conservatives are endangering President Bush's goal of drawing millions of Latino voters to the Republican Party and helping realign ethnic politics for years to come, according to an array of analysts and officials.

The latest blow to Bush's efforts to woo Hispanics came last week, when a band of House Republicans unexpectedly balked at renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, partly because of a 30-year-old requirement that many local governments provide bilingual ballots. The revolt, which forced House GOP leaders to abruptly postpone a vote, came as House Republicans are stiffening their resistance to Bush's bid to allow pathways to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants while also strengthening borders and deportation efforts.

"It's sort of a double whammy," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a Cuban native who is among the GOP's most visible Hispanic leaders. Under Bush's leadership, he said in an interview, "our party has shown a very welcoming approach to the emerging Hispanic vote." However, he said, "there obviously are those who feel that's not important. . . . I think there could be great political risks to becoming the party of exclusion and not a party of inclusion."

While the stalemate over immigration legislation will be difficult to break, House leaders predict they eventually will quell the conservative rebellion over the Voting Rights Act and reauthorize the law for 25 years.

But the depth of House GOP support for English-only policies was demonstrated Wednesday night, when an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted to end funding for the bilingual ballots provision. The effort, led by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), failed only because 192 Democrats joined 61 Republicans to vote against it.

The actions have embarrassed the White House and inflamed many Latinos.

"It's offensive and insulting," said Cecilia Mu?oz, vice president for policy for the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. She said the national Republican Party is running "a real risk" of replicating the blunder that began unraveling the California GOP in 1994.

That's when then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) backed a ballot initiative barring illegal immigrants from attending public schools or receiving social services. The ensuing uproar drove hundreds of thousands of Latino voters into Democrats' arms. The state has backed Democratic presidential and senatorial nominees ever since.

"That is exactly the danger that is facing Republicans today," Mu?oz said. She praised Bush, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and others who "know that immigrant-bashing is disastrous to the future of their party -- and they're right."

Peter Zamora, legislative attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he believes that House leaders will manage to salvage the Voting Rights Act renewal. However, he said, "it will be a political challenge to explain tabling the Voting Rights Act to the Latino community if action isn't taken very soon."

Both parties are energetically courting the nation's burgeoning Hispanic population, which will become increasingly important as more second- and third-generation Latinos get involved in politics, and as more immigrants attain citizenship and the right to vote.

Most Latino voters lean Democratic, but Republicans have long felt they can chip away at that advantage. Bush -- who has advocated social services and pathways to legal status for illegal immigrants since he was governor of Texas -- took 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 after winning 34 percent in 2000, according to exit polls. In league with Mehlman, political adviser Karl Rove and others, Bush has urged his party to pursue Latino voters in numbers that could help keep Democrats in the minority for decades.

But some GOP activists say the drive is being undermined by the Republican-controlled House's tough stance on immigration and the flap over voting rights.

Many Southern House Republicans have long objected to the Voting Rights Act's requirement that their states obtain Justice Department approval for an array of voting activities. Last week, in a closed GOP caucus meeting, they were joined by colleagues from throughout the country who object to a measure added in 1975 that requires ballots or interpreters to be available in a number of foreign languages in places where census reports found a need for language help.

"Multilingual ballots divide our country, increase the risk of voter error and fraud, and burden local taxpayers," said a letter signed by nearly 80 House Republicans and authored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

The 2000 Census found that nearly 41 percent of all Hispanic persons 5 years and older spoke English less than "very well," and those eligible to vote needed language assistance.

John Bueno, a Republican from Michigan, is president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which was meeting in Dallas last week when news of the voting rights flap broke. "My first reaction was, 'My God, here we are, it's 2006, and we're still dealing with this issue,' " Bueno said. "Mainstream Republicans are frustrated right now with what's going on in Congress."

Latino Democrats, meanwhile, can hardly believe how Bush's overtures are being thwarted by his own party. By stressing English-only policies and stumbling on the immigration and Voting Rights Act issues, congressional Republicans "either made the best case for switching the Congress from Republican to Democratic control, or they made the best case for their own incompetence," said Pedro Col?n, a Wisconsin legislator who attended the Dallas convention. "As a Democrat, I'm really optimistic about our opportunities."

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