WASHINGTON – The House resoundingly agreed Thursday to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rebuffing conservatives’ complaint that Texas and several Southern states will remain under heightened oversight despite improved civil-rights records.

The 390-33 vote capped a debate punctuated by lofty rhetoric, rancorous jabs and reminders of the civil-rights clashes of the 1950s and 1960s.

“Yes, we have made some progress,” thundered Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who was badly beaten by Alabama troopers during a 1965 civil-rights march on Selma. “But 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 path.”

The vote brought to a close a difficult episode for House GOP leaders who were thwarted when they tried to bring the bill up last month, hoping to burnish their party’s credentials with minorities. The leadership was forced to pull the legislation after conservatives in the Georgia and Texas delegations rebelled, insisting their states have remedied long-ago racism and should be freed from extra scrutiny.

To quell the revolt, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and other conservatives were allowed to offer amendments that would have relaxed some provisions of the landmark law, parts of which expire next year.

The House rejected Gohmert’s bid to shorten the extension to 10 years from the 25 in the bill. “I believe there is empirical evidence that shows this act needs to be reviewed much more often,” he said.

The Texan and other conservative critics insisted their attempt to tailor the Voting Rights Act provisions could spare the law from being struck down by the Supreme Court. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and other bill supporters denounced the conservatives’ amendments as poison pills.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., implored the House “not to allow a small group to drag us back to the days of Jim Crow voting.”

Lawmakers also reaffirmed support for a 1975 provision requiring bilingual ballots in areas with large numbers of voters who speak a language other than English.

Requiring the use of bilingual ballots is “multiculturalism at its worst,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. “We are hurting America by making it easier for people not to learn English.”

The House rejected an amendment that would have given the attorney general the discretion to end oversight for state and local governments required to obtain Justice Department approval before making any voting-related changes that could affect minorities.

Texas is one of eight states required to get pre-clearance for changes large and small – whether plans to alter congressional and legislative district boundaries or the location of polling places.

“It troubles me greatly in America that my grandchildren can be punished for the sins of my grandparents,” said Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, one of six Texas Republicans who voted against the Voting Rights Act renewal.

Other conservatives echoed his criticism.

“We have repented and we have reformed,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., asking if Georgians “must eternally wear the scarlet letter.”

But while critics insisted the racism and discriminatory practices that landed Texas, Georgia and others on the extra scrutiny list are relics of a long-ago past, others insisted problems remain very real.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, noted that just weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled Texas had violated the Voting Rights Act in redrawing one congressional district’s lines. And a controversial Georgia voter ID law has been blocked by a federal judge.

As the House waged its intense debate, Texas Sen. John Cornyn convened a hearing on the other side of Capitol Hill to examine whether the Supreme Court’s Texas redistricting ruling affects the ongoing Voting Rights Act debate. At a hearing of his Senate Judiciary subcommittee, the Texas Republican suggested he shares concerns about renewal of the voting-rights provisions.

“It is disturbing when an act designed to ensure voters have full access to the ballot box has become a vehicle for partisan maneuvering,” Cornyn said. But others on the panel indicated their support for renewal, which the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up later this month.



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