Thursday, June 22, 2006

GOP Postpones Vote to Renew Voting Rights Act, Senate May Follow

By Laurie Kellman, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - House Republican leaders on Wednesday postponed a vote on renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act after GOP lawmakers complained it unfairly singles out nine Southern states for federal oversight.

"We have time to address their concerns," Republican leaders said in
a joint statement. "Therefore, the House Republican Leadership will
offer members the time needed to evaluate the legislation."

It was unclear whether the legislation would come up this year. The
temporary provisions don't expire until 2007, but leaders of both
parties had hoped to pass the act and use it to further their
prospects in the fall's midterm elections.

The statement said the GOP leaders are committed to renewing the
law "as soon as possible."

The four-decade-old law enfranchised millions of black voters by
ending poll taxes and literacy tests during the height of the civil
rights struggle. A vote on renewing it for another 25 years had been
scheduled for Wednesday, with both Republican and Democratic leaders
behind it

The abrupt change of plans in the House could affect the renewal in
the Senate, where an identical bill was set for consideration next
week by the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to Chairman Arlen
Specter, R-Pa.

"There's less pressure to do it if the House is not doing it,"
Specter said in a telephone interview.

The shift came after a private House GOP caucus meeting earlier
Wednesday in which several Republicans also balked at extending
provisions in the law that require ballots to be printed in more than
one language in neighborhoods where there are large numbers of
immigrants, said several participants.

"The speaker's had a standing rule that nothing would be voted on
unless there's a majority of the majority," said Rep. Lynn
Westmoreland, R-Ga., who led the objections. "It was pretty clear at
the meeting that the majority of the majority wasn't there."

The legislation was approved by the Judiciary Committee on a 33-1
vote. But despite leadership support, controversy has shadowed the
legislation 40 years after it first prohibited policies that blocked
blacks from voting.

Several Republicans, led by Westmoreland, had worked to allow an
amendment that would ease a requirement that nine states win
permission from the Justice Department or a federal judge to change
their voting rules.

The amendment's backers say the requirement unfairly singles out and
holds accountable nine states that practiced racist voting policies
decades ago, based on 1964 voter turnout data: Alabama, Alaska,
Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and

Westmoreland says the formula for deciding which states are subject
to such "pre-clearance" should be updated every four years and be
based on voter turnout in the most recent three elections.

"The pre-clearance portions of the Voting Rights Act should apply to
all states, or no states," Westmoreland said. "Singling out certain
states for special scrutiny no longer makes sense."

The amendment has powerful opponents. From Republican and Democratic
leaders on down the House hierarchy, they argue that states with
documented histories of discrimination may still practice it and have
earned the extra scrutiny.

"This carefully crafted legislation should remain clean and
unamended," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who worked on the original
bill, which he called "the keystone of our national civil rights

By his own estimation, Westmoreland says the amendment stands little
chance of being adopted.

The House also could bring up an amendment that would require the
Justice Department to compile an annual list of jurisdictions
eligible for a "bailout" from the pre-clearance requirements.

That amendment, too, has little chance of surviving floor debate.

Other efforts to chip away at the act have faltered under pressure
from powerful supporters.

One such measure, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, sought to
strip a provision that requires ballots to be printed in several
languages and interpreters be provided in states and counties where
large numbers of citizens speak limited English.

However, Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.,
called that logic an effort to mix the divisive debate over
immigration reform with the Voting Rights Act renewal. Three-fourths
of those whose primary language is not English are American-born, he

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