It was supposed to be a slam-dunkwhich is why House Republican leaders originally decided to bring up the 1965 Voting Rights Act for renewal a full year before parts of it expire. After all, Republicans had been criticized for being anti-immigrant during the contentious debate over immigration reform, and this seemed to be an easy way to mend fencesnot build them.
But, right before the July 4 recess, the GOP leaders were surprised when conservatives in their rank and file began to balk at some of the provisions up for renewal. It's not that the whole act needs to be renewedjust the part that requires certain states with histories of discrimination to preclear any voting-law changes, and another that requires bilingual ballots in certain areas. As it turns out, those provisions made lots of Republicans unhappyso the leadership pulled their slam-dunk in early July.
Yesterday, the House finally had its debateand passed the act, with only 33 dissenters. But not before some Republicans made it very clear they were not pleased. First there were the English-only ballot folks. If you think this is a rerun of the immigration debate, you're right. The fight was led by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who told me that we can't expect people to speak English to become citizensand then allow them to vote in another language. King and his allies called multilingual ballots "a horrible attack on the unity" of the country. They did get 185 votes for an amendment that would have forbidden multilingual ballots, almost all of them Republican and a clear majority of the House GOP. A majority of Republicans also backed another amendment that would have eliminated the requirement that certain states get preclearance for voting-law changes. The southern congressmen complained that their states no longer discriminate, so it's not necessary.
In the end, the Voting Rights Act passed with only 33 dissentersand it will be passed by the Senate, perhaps in August. It may not be perfect, but it's a symbol of the changes this country has made since 1965when it was a necessity.
The Republicans headed off a huge embarrassment, and they know it. Here's the interesting part (it's very inside, so get ready): House Speaker Dennis Hastert not long ago announced that he would introduce major legislation only with a majority of the majoritythat is, with most of the House's 231 Republicans behind the legislation. But yesterday, at least, he needed overwhelming Democratic support to kill amendments that, if passed, would have killed the Voting Rights Act. And that's just fine.