updated 7/13/2006 4:41:17 PM ET 2006-07-13T20:41:17

Ghosts of the civil rights movement haunted a House debate Thursday over whether to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act as opponents complained that it punishes Southern states for racism they’ve overcome.

“By passing this rewrite of the Voting Rights Act, Congress is declaring from on high that states with voting problems 40 years ago can simply never be forgiven,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., one of several lawmakers pressing for changes to the law to ease its requirements on Southern states.

Supporters of renewing the law without change said the pain of racial struggle — and racist voting practices — is still felt today.

The House planned to vote later Thursday on renewing the law after deciding what to do about changes proposed by a group of conservative Republicans

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., displayed photos of civil rights activists, including himself, who were beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1965 as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights.

“I have a concussion. I almost died. I gave blood; some of my colleagues gave their very lives,” Lewis shouted from the House floor, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson, another veteran of the civil rights movement, looked on from the gallery.

“Yes, we’ve made some progress; we have come a distance,” Lewis added. “The sad truth is, discrimination still exists. That’s why we still need the Voting Rights Act and we must not go back to the dark past.”

Southern conservatives' long shadow
The very debate over changes to the act is testament to the influence of Southern conservatives, even over their own GOP leaders who had hoped to pass the renewal as a fresh appeal for support from minorities on Election Day.

With rare bipartisan support among leaders of the House and Senate, the renewal was widely expected to sail through Congress and on to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

Republican leaders, however, were forced to cancel a House vote last month when conservatives rebelled during a closed meeting against provisions they say single out Southern states for federal oversight despite the civil rights progress they’ve made in recent years.

Unable to satisfy the dissenters and eager to pass the bill this week, Republican leaders announced late Wednesday they would allow the House to consider amendments, none of which was expected to pass.

Amendments in play
The amendments include proposals to extend the act for a decade, rather than the 25 years in the bill; require the Justice Department to prove why certain states and localities should stay on the list of those who need federal approval for changes to voting rules; and change the requirements for how states and localities qualify for that list.

“A lot has changed in 40-plus years,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. “We should have a law that fits the world in 2006.”

Another amendment would strike requirements in the law that ballots in districts with large populations of non-English speakers be printed in other languages.

Democrats made clear early in the day they would vote against the renewal if any of the amendments were added.

“Any one of them would be a weakening of the Voting Rights Act,” said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Bush ‘supports intent’ of renewal
The White House also weighed in during the debate, saying in a statement that the Bush administration “supports the intent” of the renewal. The statement did not take a position on the amendments proposed by lawmakers who represent the GOP’s conservative base.

Their objections to the renewal already were being echoed by some Senate colleagues from the same states.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., noted that the act doesn’t expire until next year.

“It’s 13 months away and we’re creating a political situation that doesn’t need to be created,” Coburn said in an interview. He said changes such as those proposed by the House amendments need time for consideration.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., called lawmakers who want to loosen the requirements in the law “ideological soul mates” of lawmakers who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“For them, this is not a debate about fairness, it is about ideology. Ideology has no place in today’s debate,” Hastings said. “We should do this not for the partisan benefit but because, as John Kennedy said, it is right.”

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