WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a 25-year renewal of the landmark Voting Rights Act, but only after a cadre of Republican conservatives defied party leaders by pressing ahead with unsuccessful -- and controversial -- efforts to revise the measure.
Their attempts to modify what is often called the crown jewel of the civil rights movement included shortening the bill's life and repealing its requirement that bilingual ballots be provided to minority voters.
The modifications, derided by the bill's sponsors as "stabbing the Voting Rights Act in the heart," were defeated by an unusual coalition of virtually all of the chamber's 201 Democrats and its Republican leaders.
"Republicans and Democrats have united in a historic vote to preserve and protect one of America's most important fundamental rights -- the right to vote," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a statement after the 390-33 vote, without mentioning that a majority of Republicans voted for most of the efforts to modify the law.
The rare public display of GOP dissension was a blow to strategists at the White House, who had hoped an election-year renewal of the act would boost Republicans' appeal to minority voters in the fall elections.
The bill still faces turmoil in the Senate. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said he wanted the committee to consider the bill on Wednesday, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has not scheduled floor action. And some senators, like Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), are echoing some concerns raised by their House counterparts.
The all-day House debate was emotional, resonating with the echoes of the nation's violent history of voter discrimination.
"I was beaten; I have a concussion; I almost died," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), holding a photo of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., where state troopers attacked protesters with fire hoses and batons. "I gave a little blood, but some of my colleagues gave their very lives."
But those who wanted to modify the law's expiring features -- including a requirement for Justice Department oversight of voting laws in states, most of them Southern, with a history of discrimination -- argued that the South had been punished enough.
"The House is voting today to keep my state in the penalty box for 25 more years based on the actions of people who are now dead," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who urged changes to make it easier for states and cities to be exempted.
In the initial decades after the Civil War, African Americans voted in record numbers. But early in the 20th century, as the number of lynchings grew, so did state-sanctioned poll taxes, literacy tests and even violence against blacks who attempted to register to vote. Only after the civil rights movement of the 1960s -- including the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 -- did African Americans again vote in great numbers, electing record numbers of black officials.
Opponents argued that Florida and Ohio, infamous for electoral irregularities in the last few years, should also be required to clear their voting law changes with the Justice Department. Otherwise, they said, the law unfairly targets the South for its history, not its present record.
"This is blatant discrimination, based on nothing more than where they live, and unconstitutional," said Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga). "Georgia now outperforms the nation in every area of black voting -- turnout, registration and the success rate of black candidates. Clearly, by all measurable standards, the injustices targeted under the Voting Rights Act have been remedied."
But one of Norwood's fellow Georgians, Democratic Rep. David Scott, argued that black voters still needed protection.
"No state needs the Voting Rights Act more than Georgia," he said. Even though one-third of statewide elected officials are African American, Scott added, the recent enactment of a state voter identity bill "gives ample evidence that Georgia is still discriminating."
The other hot-button issue was an attempt to repeal the law's requirement that states and localities provide bilingual ballots and materials to minority voters in places where they represent at least 5% of the electorate. The state of California prints ballots in seven languages, according to the secretary of state's office in Sacramento.
Proponents argued that bilingual ballots were needed mostly by U.S.-born citizens who were more comfortable reading a ballot in their parents' language. Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) said during a news conference Thursday that her mother, who teaches English, sometimes prefers a Spanish-language ballot to understand the nuances of complex ballot measures.
But opponents countered that bilingual ballots were an unfunded mandate, which forced states to pick up the costs. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) called them "a travesty" and "a terrible long-term attack on the unity of America."
"What unites us is English," he said. "This is multiculturalism at its worst."
Of the four amendments defeated in the House, three had the support of a majority of the chamber's 231 Republicans. Only the suggestion that the Voting Rights Act be extended to cover other jurisdictions was defeated by majorities of both Republicans and Democrats.
In the California delegation, five Republicans voted against the bill: Reps. John Campbell of Irvine, John T. Doolittle of Roseville, Wally Herger of Chico, Rohrabacher and Ed Royce of Fullerton. All other delegation members voted in favor.