WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Senate, overcoming a lengthy Republican filibuster, passed and sent to President Clinton yesterday a landmark bill intended to make voter registration easier for millions of Americans.
What had been a fierce test of wills over the GOP's ability to exert its influence in a new era of undivided Democratic government finally ended when five moderate Republicans broke ranks and joined the Democrats in passing the so-called motor voter bill by a vote of 62-36.
Final passage of the bill, held up in the Senate for more than two months by Republican delay tactics, had been assured following a compromise reached late last month by House and Senate negotiators, who modified two key provisions to win the Republican moderates' support.
The House approved the final version of the bill, which Mr. Clinton has promised to sign, by a 259-164 vote last week.
The legislation, the approval of which marks a hard-fought and much-needed victory for the president on Capitol Hill, simplifies voter registration by allowing people to register by mail or at welfare agencies, disability offices, military recruitment centers and motor vehicle bureaus.
"Today's Senate action . . . is a milestone for voting rights," said Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters.
As part of the deal that was struck to win over Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota and four other key Republican moderates, unemployment benefits offices were exempted from the list of state and municipal agencies that will be required to offer voter registration.
At Mr. Durenberger's insistence, language was also inserted to ensure that welfare recipients are not coerced into registering to vote.
The moderate Republicans had insisted on those and other minor changes to address GOP fears that the bill had been drafted with the hidden partisan intent of mandating registration chiefly at locations where potential Democratic voters are most likely to show up.
Most Republicans objected that the bill could still lead to widespread voting fraud, but the changes were enough to satisfy Mr. Durenberger and four other GOP moderates -- Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Bob Packwood of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- who joined Oregon's Mark O. Hatfield, the legislation's lone Republican sponsor, in voting for the bill.
Although he voted against the bill, a seventh Republican, William S. Cohen of Maine, voted earlier to break his party's filibuster and clear the way for final passage. That vote was 63-37.
Maryland's senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both voted to break the filibuster and to approve the bill.
Supporters hailed final passage as a long overdue reform that would encourage minorities and other groups with traditionally low voter registration rates to go to the polls.
Most Republicans, however, had demanded that the Democrats find a way of paying for the bill before giving it their support. As passed, state and local governments will bear the estimated $200 million burden of implementing the new law.
In an on-and-off debate that began in early March, Republicans blocked the bill three times, provoking Democratic charges that the Republicans were perpetuating gridlock by asserting the right to filibuster at every legislative turn.
With each confrontation, the political stakes were raised until they overshadowed the debate over the bill itself. For the Republicans, filibustering the motor-voter bill became a test of the unity they would later show in stopping the president's stimulus package.
For the Democrats, it became a test of their ability to prove they can govern now that they control Congress and the White House.