WASHINGTON — In an intensely competitive election year, this was supposed to be the issue virtually everyone in Congress could agree on: renewing civil rights-era laws protecting minorities' access to the ballot box.
But on the cusp of a vote scheduled for Thursday that White House strategists and other top Republicans once hoped would symbolize a GOP eager to attract more blacks and Latinos, a group of increasingly vocal Capitol Hill conservatives is staging a revolt -- arguing that certain provisions of the law are out of sync with party principles and are insulting to the South.
The result is another emotional standoff within a party already fractured over how to deal with illegal immigration.
As in the battle over immigration policy, the flap over the Voting Rights Act pits the "big tent" political aims of President Bush's closest political advisors against conservatives who argue that they are being asked to vote against their values.
And the dispute is erupting at the same time that White House officials are deciding whether Bush this weekend should make his first speech since taking office to the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest and biggest civil rights organization. The disagreement in the GOP-dominated Congress could spoil Bush's ability to cite renewal of the Voting Rights Act as proof that minorities can trust Republicans.
On Tuesday, Republican leaders were waging a fierce, behind-the-scenes fight to persuade recalcitrant conservatives that backing the act would benefit the party.
But the conservatives weren't buying the argument, pressing their belief that Congress should change sections that impose federal oversight of states with histories of institutional racism and those that require bilingual ballots.
A two-hour meeting among House leaders, GOP strategists and the law's critics failed to resolve the disagreement, leading some to question whether the House would go ahead with its Thursday vote.
A postponement would be the second time within a month that the vote had been delayed -- a move that would heighten the White House's embarrassment and intensify its need for damage control within minority communities.
"I want this bill finished this week," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters after the meeting. "But to tell you everything is settled and everyone is happy would not be the truth."
If the vote does not occur by the time thousands gather Saturday in Washington for the NAACP convention, group leaders who have forged closer ties with the White House in recent months would find themselves once again at odds with Republicans.
Critics of the Voting Rights Act provisions concede they are unlikely to win changes to the law. But the existence of another racially sensitive debate within the GOP has the potential to complicate the party's election-year message as it seeks to stave off potential Democratic gains.
Both Bush and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman have called repeatedly for the 41-year-old Voting Rights Act to be renewed. The law requires a vote by 2007, but White House strategists want to make its renewal part of an outreach plan this year that features black Republicans running for high-level offices in Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Bush and Mehlman have called the Voting Rights Act the "crown jewel" of the nation's civil rights laws.
Three months ago, leading Republicans such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin stood side-by-side with liberal Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to back the law's renewal.
But the GOP lawmakers complicating the push for renewal assert that Bush and the other top Republicans are pursuing voters at the expense of conservative ideals.
"The party is engaged in group politics," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa. "I reject the idea of doing that. We are all created in God's image. He draws no distinction between race, skin color or national origin. It's an insult to him for us to do so in our public policy in America."
King, backed by almost 80 fellow conservatives, has focused his efforts on fighting the requirement for bilingual ballots in districts where some voters speak limited English.
He said he also agreed with those conservatives seeking changes to the provision that required the Justice Department to screen state and local voting-related decisions in certain communities -- mostly in the South -- to ensure that the new rules did not harm the rights of minorities. The proposed changes would make it easier for the communities to win exemptions from federal oversight.
Civil rights leaders argue that the areas that receive special screening were selected because they were notorious for institutionalized acts of racism, such as adopting laws designed to prevent blacks from voting.