July 13, 2006

House takes up voting rights bill

By Amanda Beck

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on
Thursday opened debate on extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act,
the law that opened the voting booth to minorities and expanded
their presence in Congress.

Often described as a crown jewel of the civil rights era,
the Voting Rights Act let blacks and other minorities cast
ballots without fear, intimidation or barriers such as poll
taxes and literacy tests.

The House was expected to approve the 25-year extension
with a broad bipartisan vote. The Senate was to take up the
bill, backed by President George W. Bush, later this year.

House leaders had hoped to pass the bill in June but had to
cancel the vote at the last minute because of a rebellion by
some conservative Republicans. They were allowed to offer some
amendments on Thursday, all of which were expected to fail.

Controversy has centered on two issues -- extra scrutiny
for mostly southern states with a legacy of discrimination
against minority voters, and a requirement to provide bilingual
ballots to citizens whose English is poor.

Most of the Voting Rights Act is permanent law but portions
can expire if not renewed periodically. Some conservative
Republicans from Georgia and Texas argued that the country has
made so much progress in civil rights that it was time to
change provisions that keep nine mostly southern states under
extra scrutiny because of their poor civil rights histories.

Virginia Democrat Robert Scott said there was a good reason
those nine states still need advance clearance from the Justice
Department to make changes in electoral practices. "They got
covered the old-fashioned way -- they earned it," Scott said.

Georgia Democrat Rep. John Lewis, who came to national
renown as a young civil rights leader, delivered an emotional
speech recalling how he was nearly beaten to death in Selma,
Alabama, during a march for the right to vote.

"We need the Voting Rights Act because in the last 25 years
the covered jurisdictions have not come through," Judiciary
Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican,
said, listing scores of violations since the law was last

(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen)