House Republican leaders on Wednesday postponed a vote on renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act after GOP lawmakers complained it unfairly singles out nine Southern states for federal oversight.
"We have time to address their concerns," Republican leaders said in a joint statement. "Therefore, the House Republican Leadership will offer members the time needed to evaluate the legislation."
It was unclear whether the legislation would come up this year. The temporary provisions don't expire until 2007, but leaders of both parties had hoped to pass the act and use it to further their prospects in the fall's midterm elections.
The statement said the GOP leaders are committed to renewing the law "as soon as possible."
The four-decade-old law enfranchised millions of black voters by ending poll taxes and literacy tests during the height of the civil rights struggle. A vote on renewing it for another 25 years had been scheduled for Wednesday, with both Republican and Democratic leaders behind it.
The dramatic shift came after a private caucus meeting earlier Wednesday in which several Republicans also balked at extending provisions in the law that require ballots to be printed in more than one language in neighborhoods where there are large numbers of immigrants, said several participants.
"The speaker's had a standing rule that nothing would be voted on unless there's a majority of the majority," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who led the objections. "It was pretty clear at the meeting that the majority of the majority wasn't there."
The legislation was approved by the Judiciary Committee on a 33-1 vote. But despite leadership support, controversy has shadowed the legislation 40 years after it first prohibited policies that blocked blacks from voting.
Several Republicans, led by Westmoreland, had worked to allow an amendment that would ease a requirement that nine states win permission from the Justice Department or a federal judge to change their voting rules.
The amendment's backers say the requirement unfairly singles out and holds accountable nine states that practiced racist voting policies decades ago, based on 1964 voter turnout data: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Westmoreland says the formula for deciding which states are subject to such "pre-clearance" should be updated every four years and be based on voter turnout in the most recent three elections.
"The pre-clearance portions of the Voting Rights Act should apply to all states, or no states," Westmoreland said. "Singling out certain states for special scrutiny no longer makes sense."
The amendment has powerful opponents. From Republican and Democratic leaders on down the House hierarchy, they argue that states with documented histories of discrimination may still practice it and have earned the extra scrutiny.
"This carefully crafted legislation should remain clean and unamended," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who worked on the original bill, which he called "the keystone of our national civil rights statutes."
By his own estimation, Westmoreland says the amendment stands little chance of being adopted.
The House also could bring up an amendment that would require the Justice Department to compile an annual list of jurisdictions eligible for a "bailout" from the pre-clearance requirements.
That amendment, too, has little chance of surviving the floor debate, leaving the underlying bill likely to pass the House. The Senate is scheduled to consider an identical bill later this year.
Other efforts to chip away at the act have faltered under pressure from powerful supporters.
One such measure, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would have stripped a provision that requires ballots to be printed in several languages and interpreters be provided in states and counties where large numbers of citizens speak limited English.
"It seems sort of redundant to have both of those provisions," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. He added that any foreign-speaking voter must prove some English proficiency to win citizenship.
However, Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., called that logic an effort to mix the divisive debate over immigration reform with the Voting Rights Act renewal. Three-fourths of those whose primary language is not English are American-born, he said.