Rebellion Stalls Extension of Voting Rights Act
Rebellion Stalls Extension of Voting Rights Act
By CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON, June 21 — House Republican leaders abruptly canceled a
planned vote to renew the Voting Rights Act on Wednesday after a
rebellion by lawmakers who said the civil rights measure unfairly
singled out Southern states and unnecessarily required ballots to be
printed in foreign languages.
The reversal represented a significant embarrassment for the party
leadership, which had promised a vote to extend the act, the 1965 law
that is credited with ending rampant discrimination at the polls and
electing black officeholders throughout the South. Early last month,
House and Senate leaders of both parties gathered on the steps of the
Capitol in a rare bipartisan moment to celebrate its imminent approval.
But just hours before the vote was to occur Wednesday, lawmakers
critical of the bill mutinied in a closed morning meeting of House
Republicans, raising sufficient objections to prompt the leadership to
pull the bill indefinitely.
Several lawmakers said it was uncertain whether a majority of
Republicans would back the legislation without the changes sought by
critics, and under the House leadership's informal rules no bill can
reach a vote without the support of a majority of the Republicans.
"A lot of it looks as if these are some old boys from the South who
are trying to do away with it," said Representative Lynn Westmoreland
of Georgia, who said it would be unfair to keep Georgia under the
confines of the law when his state has cleaned up its voting rights
record. "But these old boys are trying to make it constitutional
enough that it will withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court."
Despite the resistance, the Republican leadership issued a statement
pledging to move ahead quickly with a vote once Republicans were given
additional time to work out their differences.
"While the bill will not be considered today, the House G.O.P.
leadership is committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation
as soon as possible," the leadership said in the statement.
Democrats and civil rights groups expressed strong disappointment in
the change of plans, particularly given what appeared to be a
bipartisan consensus to push ahead before major elements of the law
expire in the middle of next year. The renewal would be for 25 years.
"We fear that pulling the bill could send the wrong message about
whether the bill enjoys broad bipartisan support and that delaying
consideration until after the July 4 recess could give those with
partisan intentions space and time to politicize the issue," said
Representative Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat who is the
chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Democrats said they were holding their political fire to some degree
in the interests of winning passage of the measure, but they predicted
it could become a significant political issue if the fight dragged on
The delay marked the second time in days that House Republicans had
pulled back on legislation. On Tuesday, the leadership announced it
would hold hearings this summer on immigration policy before trying to
negotiate legislation that differs from the Senate.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in
August 1965 after a string of violence in Southern states resulting
from deep resistance to voting by blacks. The law instituted a
nationwide prohibition against voting discrimination based on race,
eliminated poll taxes and literacy tests, and put added safeguards in
regions where discrimination had been especially pronounced. Those
included a requirement for the Justice Department to review any
proposed changes to voting procedures to judge if they would be
That "preclearance" requirement would be retained for the nine states
entirely covered by the law, most of them in the South, and parts of
seven others. But Mr. Westmoreland and other Southern Republicans said
their states have made great strides in voting access for members of
minority groups, while some of the most recent irregularities have
taken place in places exempt from the requirement.
"The hanging chads down in Florida, that jurisdiction is not covered,"
Advocates of the act say the history of discrimination in the covered
states justifies their special status and that leaders who believe
their jurisdictions should be exempt can apply to "bail out" through a
"The fact of the matter is that you have a small group of members who
have hijacked this bill, and many of these individuals represent
states that have been in violation for a long time," said Nancy M.
Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
"We believe these individuals do not want the Voting Rights Act
The Republican leadership of the House and the Senate decided earlier
this year to proceed speedily with the renewal to put to rest fears
that Republicans intended to let it expire next year, and to try to
make political inroads with minority groups. If the act is allowed to
expire, Democrats will almost certainly accuse Republicans of trying
to turn the clock back on civil rights.
But Southern lawmakers, mainly from Georgia and Texas, continued to
push their objections, with some suggesting the House hold off action
pending a Supreme Court ruling on a Texas redistricting case.
A new problem arose as some Republicans, already caught up in a fight
over immigration policy, began raising questions about a requirement
for bilingual ballots in cases where political jurisdictions meet a
certain threshold for citizens who struggle with English.
Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, has pushed a proposal
to eliminate that plan, arguing that naturalized citizens should have
had to prove English proficiency as part of their citizenship test and
that American-born speakers of other languages are entitled to
assistance at the polls.
"There is no need to print ballots in any language other than
English," Mr. King said Wednesday.
But the leadership did not allow him to offer the provision, angering
some Republicans. Lawmakers and aides said that Representative F.
James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who is the chairman
of the Judiciary Committee, also left Wednesday's meeting without
answering questions about the bill, angering others. In the resulting
tumult, the leadership decided to delay the vote.