The House voted Thursday to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rejecting efforts by Southern conservatives to relax federal oversight of their states in a debate haunted by the ghosts of the civil rights movement.
The 390-33 vote sent to the Senate a bill that represented a Republican appeal to minority voters who doubt the GOP’s “big-tent” image.
All of the “no” votes came from Republicans, in defiance of their own leaders.
“The liberties and freedom embedded in the right to vote must remain sacred,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said in a statement. “Principles like these cannot wait for discrimination to rear its ugly head.”
The House overwhelmingly rejected amendments that would have shortened the renewal from 25 years to a decade and would have struck its requirement that ballots in some states be printed in several languages.
Supporters used stark images and emotional language to make clear that the pain of racial struggle—and racist voting practices—still stings.
Rep. John Lewis (news, bio, voting record), D-Ga., displayed photos of civil rights activists, including himself, who were beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1965 as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights.
“I have a concussion. I almost died. I gave blood; some of my colleagues gave their very lives,” Lewis shouted from the House floor, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson, another veteran of the civil rights movement, looked on from the gallery.
“Yes, we’ve made some progress; we have come a distance,” Lewis added. “The sad truth is, discrimination still exists. That’s why we still need the Voting Rights Act and we must not go back to the dark past.”
The amendment that would have extended the act for a decade, rather than the 25 years in the bill, was rejected 288-134. The proposal to strike requirements in the law that ballots in districts with large populations of non-English speakers be printed in other languages failed 238-185.
Democrats made clear early in the day they would vote against the renewal if any of the amendments were added.
“Any one of them would be a weakening of the Voting Rights Act,” said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
The White House also weighed in during the debate, saying in a statement that the Bush administration “supports the intent” of the renewal. The statement did not take a position on the amendments proposed by lawmakers who represented the GOP’s conservative base.
The states identified in the bill as still in need of federal oversight are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.