The House voted Thursday to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rejecting efforts by Southern conservatives to relax federal oversight of their states in a debate haunted by the ghosts of the civil rights movement.
The 390-33 vote sent to the Senate a bill that represented a Republican appeal to minority voters who doubt the GOP's "big-tent" image. Ten representatives did not vote. Southern conservatives had complained that the act punishes their states for racist voting histories they say 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.
By a vote of 288-134 the House overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have shortened the renewal from 25 years to a decade, It also defeated, by a vote of 238-185, another amendment that would have struck its requirement that ballots in some states be printed in several languages.
Supporters of the law as written called the amendments "poison pills" designed to kill the renewal because if any were adopted by the full House, the underlying renewal might have failed.
Racial struggle still stings
Supporters used stark images and emotional language to make clear that the pain of racial struggle -- and racist voting practices -- still stings.
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."
The bill's progress through Congress is considered by Republican leaders as one way to stem the damage to the party's "big-tent" image among minorities watching the contentious debate over whether to grant most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.
The renewal of the Voting Rights Act - the legislative centerpiece of the civil rights movement - is widely supported by House leaders in both parties. It had been expected to sail through the House last month, but a rebellion in a closed GOP caucus meeting forced supporters to cancel the vote.
Conservatives, mostly from the South, contended that the bill singled out their states for Justice Department scrutiny without giving them credit for strides on civil rights.
Behind the scenes
Hours of negotiations in recent days yielded an agreement, approved 8-3 on Wednesday by the Rules Committee, to allow votes on a few amendments proposing the changes pushed by the objectors.
The changes are not expected to be added to the legislation. But House leaders, intent on passing the bill over to the Senate this week, agreed to allow votes on the four amendments to move it along.
Civil rights advocates, however, see the amendments as the latest in a history of attempts to undercut growing political influence of racial minorities.
"I hope the House will see this for what it is and vote against these amendments," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement.
Congress got some firepower late Wednesday from big business - namely Tyco, Comcast, Disney and CBS Corp.
"Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act reinforces the importance we as a nation attach to each vote cast by every adult American," CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves wrote to congressional leaders. "I look forward to saluting you and your colleagues when this important task is successfully completed."
The objections from House conservatives were echoed by their colleagues across the Capitol. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wondered Wednesday on the Senate floor why Congress had to rush to renew the law when it doesn't expire until next year.
Back in the House, the amendments' authors - who hail from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida and Alabama - said the renewal as written would unfairly single out their states for another quarter of a century.
The amendment with the most appeal, sponsored by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, would have renewed the law for a decade, rather than 25 years.
Another, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., would have made it easier for cities and towns to be crossed off the list of localities that must get Justice Department approval before changing voting rules. His amendment would turn the "bailout" process upside-down and require the Justice Department to prove which localities should remain on the "preclearance" list rather than require localities to appeal for a "bailout."
"If the burden is so great that the Department of Justice cannot figure out which jurisdictions are eligible for bailout, why should we think that a small city or county like Grantville (Ga.) will be able to?" Westmoreland said in remarks prepared for the debate.
A third amendment, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would have struck the act's requirement that jurisdictions with high populations of voters who speak languages other than English print multilingual ballots.