WASHINGTON -- 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 yesterday - 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 - House Republican leaders scheduled floor debate yesterday, 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 an array of advocacy groups has been pressing for its renewal for an additional 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, which require 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, a spillover from the 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 issues a ruling in a 2003 Texas redistricting case. That decision, expected in the next two weeks, will examine whether Latino voters were disenfranchised.
Whatever the fuel, the delay set off a series of brush fires on Capitol Hill.
"It was heated," said Rep. Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican who supports an amendment by Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, to end a requirement for bilingual ballots in jurisdictions where at least 5 percent of the population speaks a different language. "I've been in meetings for two hours. There are meetings going on all over the Hill."
House Republican leaders said in a statement that they are "committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible." Unofficially, some aides said the leadership could schedule the vote again after the July Fourth 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, a California Democrat. "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 - an Alabama Democrat 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., a Wisconsin Republican, was not available to answer questions and allay concerns. In addition, they said, he consulted more often with his Senate counterparts than with members of his party during deliberations.
In a statement issued later yesterday, Sensenbrenner defended the bill and the process. "Some members, whom I believe are misinformed, have expressed concerns about voting on this legislation now," he said.
Minority and advocacy groups are likely to 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, a California Democrat.
"This delay is inexcusable."
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.