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Passionate Debate Precedes Voting Rights Renewal

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years. That plan enjoyed bi-partisan support, except for some Southern conservatives who say the law itself discriminates.

NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Yesterday's debate on the House floor was an emotional one filled with remembrance of the civil rights movement and the struggle for equality. So emotional, in fact, that midway through the afternoon, Ray LaHood, the congressman presiding over the debate, had almost worn out his gavel trying to get the various members to stay within their allotted time.

Representative SHEILA JACKSON-LEE (Democrat, Texas): In the name of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, in the name of Ivalita Jackson(ph) and Valerie Bennett(ph)...

(Soundbite of gavel banging)

Rep. JACKSON-LEE: ...who fled Florida as young teenagers, my aunt and mother. In their name, we must pass the Voter Rights Act without amendments. I yield (unintelligible).

BURBANK: What had Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee and lots of others on both sides of the aisle so emotional was the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress originally approved the Act as an emergency measure because some southern districts were still making minorities pay fees or asking them phony test questions, such as the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, before allowing them to vote.

The original Act identified nine states for close monitoring by the Department of Justice. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, himself a civil rights leader in the 1960s, stood in support of extending the Act. Next to him was a huge black and white photo showing a policeman beating Lewis during a civil rights march.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): It is the right thing to do not just for us, but for a generation yet unborn. When historians pick up their pens and write about this period, let it be said that those of us in the Congress in 2006, we did the right thing.

BURBANK: Of course, you won't find many people in Congress officially opposed to the idea of protecting minority voters, but there were a number of conservatives, mostly from states still monitored under the Act, who argued it needed some serious revising.

Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood's 9th District in Georgia must still get Department of Justice approval before it can make any changes to its voting practices, a decision based on data from the 1960s. Here's Congressman Norwood.

Representative CHARLIE NORWOOD (Republican, Georgia): This is blatant discrimination based on nothing more than where we live. Is the earth beneath our feet guilty of the crimes of man? The days of allowing the ghost of the past to discriminate against the living are and should be coming to an end.

BURBANK: Norwood's remedy was actually an amendment extending the Act to cover more states, but critics called the idea a poison pill, and said it was actually meant to derail the bill or render it unconstitutional.

Norwood's amendment lost, as did one from Republican Steve King of Iowa. That would have ended the requirement of bilingual ballots in certain areas.

The same fate befell the amendment of Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland, which would have made it easier for districts to get out of the Voting Rights doghouse.

Westmoreland's idea does have some defenders, though, among election law experts. They say that the Act could have some problems with the current Supreme Court. They worry that if the Act were struck down by that court, it could never gain reapproval from a Republican Congress.

Yesterday, though, there was no shortage of love for the Voting Rights Act. The bill passed by a 357-vote margin.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.