WASHINGTON – With the nation’s civil rights royalty fanning themselves on the White House lawn, President Bush on Thursday signed a 25-year extension of the law that seeks to protect minorities from obstacles to voting.

He also vowed vigorous enforcement – drawing skepticism from some black leaders, disappointed with his record.

“In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending,” Bush said. “Today, we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy.”

Moments later, Congressional Black Caucus chairman Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., praised Bush but warned that rhetoric can’t wash away distrust.

The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were front row in the audience, where Bush adviser Karl Rove went out of his way to welcome them.

“They’ve not done a great job, but hopefully this is a new day,” he said, adding that some black lawmakers stayed away from Thursday’s ceremony to avoid being viewed “as a backdrop for a political statement.”

The three black House members from Texas were also present, though they echoed Watt’s concerns.

“Everybody would love to believe the president when he says something positive like that,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, former head of the black caucus. “But Texas has the largest number of (voting rights) violations and we don’t see a lot of enforcement.”

She noted that the Supreme Court recently found that Texas’ latest congressional map – approved by the Bush Justice Department – violates minority rights in South Texas.

The White House defended its record, citing a record number of election monitors deployed since 2001, and the numerous enforcement actions that the Justice Department brought under the Voting Rights Act against states, counties and cities.

The 25-year extension enjoyed wide bipartisan support but was delayed for weeks when southern Republicans in the House rebelled. Some argued that the extension was too long. Others called it unfair that only nine states must seek Justice Department approval for electoral changes, big and small, from congressional lines to ballot design and selection of polling sites.

Defenders of the current system cited Supreme Court rulings indicating that if the rules were applied nationwide, the law might violate the Constitution.

The issue had been “demagogued,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, a leader in the failed effort to amend the bill. He ended up voting for it, along with all but 33 House members, all Republicans.

“There’s racism all over the country,” he said. “Some of us were trying to make it (the Act) stronger and spread it everywhere it needed to be.”

Civil rights leaders from several generations attended the ceremony, including NAACP chairman Julian Bond and former head Benjamin Hooks. The civil rights group had long been critical of Bush, and he snubbed it throughout his presidency until appearing last week at its annual meeting.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who stood just behind the president at the ceremony, said later that regardless of his record, the long-lasting impact is reason to celebrate. “This bill has a life of its own. It’s been renewed for 25 years,” she said.

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