Voting rights back on table

Having quieted dissenting conservatives, House Republicans are trying again to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act in an election-year effort to win support from minority voters.

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.

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.

They 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.”

Congress has far to go before that. The objections from House conservatives are being echoed by their colleagues across the Capitol. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wondered Wednesday on the Senate floor why Congress had to rush to rewnew 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 _ say 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 renew the law for a decade, rather than 25 years.

Another, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., would make 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 strike the act’s requirement that jurisdictions with high populations of voters who speak languages other than English print multilingual ballots.

© 2006 The Associated Press