updated 5/10/2006 6:12:33 PM ET 2006-05-10T22:12:33

What was to have been a simple renewal of the historic Voting Rights Act has become snarled in the heated debate involving immigration issues.

Conservative House members tried Wednesday to end a requirement in the 1965 law that bilingual ballots and interpreters be provided in states and counties where large numbers of citizens speak limited English.

The House Judiciary Committee rejected the effort.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said voting in English should pose no problem for any U.S. citizen.

“If you are born in America, you should know English,” he said. “If you are a naturalized citizen, you should have passed an English proficiency test.”

The committee voted 26-9 against amending the law, which ended racist practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests in Southern states, so it no longer would require the bilingual ballots and interpreters. The chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., expressed regret that the immigration and voting rights issues had become enmeshed.

“Here we are not dealing with illegal immigrants, we are dealing with U.S. citizens,” Sensenbrenner said. He has angered many Hispanics as the author of a House-passed bill that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony.

About 500 political subdivisions in 31 states must offer bilingual assistance. Of those states, five — Alaska, Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico — must provide the assistance statewide.

Later, the committee voted 46-1 to extend the law, due to expire next year, for 25 more years. Only Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who offered the amendment to strike the bilingual ballots, voted no.

Republicans voted 11-9 against King’s amendment. Democrats opposed it unanimously.

“At a time when the U.S. is experiencing record immigration, it is essential that we return to this tradition” of using ballots only in English, King said.

Sensenbrenner noted that Spanish is spoken in Puerto Rico and that many people from that territory settle on the mainland.

“They are just as much U.S. citizens as anybody else,” he said. “...I believe they should have access to bilingual ballots.”

Language, likelihood of success linked
Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, said people who do not speak English will not be able to succeed in this country. He told of a Hispanic neighbor who requires his children to speak English in the home with that philosophy in mind.

That prompted a heated reply from Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., who recalled that when she was a child, she spoke English in school and Spanish at home.

“That hasn’t prevented me or my sister from reaching our full potential,” said Sanchez, whose sister, Loretta Sanchez, is a Democratic congresswoman from California.

Sensenbrenner said he expects the bill to come up for a vote in the full House next week.

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