The bill's progress through Congress is considered by Republican leaders as one way to stem the damage to the party's "big-tent" image among minorities watching the contentious debate over whether to grant most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.
The renewal of the Voting Rights Act — a legislative pillar of the civil rights movement — is widely supported by House leaders in both parties. It had been expected to sail through the House last month, but a rebellion in a closed GOP caucus meeting forced supporters to cancel the vote.
Conservatives, mostly from the South, contended that the bill singled out their states for Justice Department scrutiny without giving them credit for strides on civil rights.
Hours of negotiations in recent days yielded an agreement, approved 8-3 on Wednesday by the Rules Committee, to allow votes on a few amendments proposing the changes pushed by the objectors.
The changes were not expected to be added to the legislation. But House leaders, intent on passing the bill over to the Senate this week, agreed to allow votes on the four amendments to move it along.
Debate began Thursday with sharp exchanges over race.
Civil rights advocates see the amendments as the latest in a history of attempts to undercut growing political influence of racial minorities.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., opened the debate by calling the conservatives who want to strike the bill's requirements for bilingual ballots present-day "ideological soul mates" of lawmakers who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"For them, this is not a debate about fairness, it is about ideology. Ideology has no place in today's debate," Hastings said. "We should do this not for the partisan benefit but because, as John Kennedy said, it is right."
To the contrary, say those who want to loosen the act's requirements on Southern states and localities required to win Justice Department approval before changing voting rules. The renewal as written, these lawmakers say, punishes state and local governments for racist practices they have overcome; the burden should be on the Justice Department to prove why certain governments should remain on the "preclearance list."
"A lot has changed in 40-plus years," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga. "We should have a law that fits the world in 2006."
Not enough, say the act's supporters. A dozen House Judiciary Committee hearings produced evidence that some districts still are drawn to dilute the influence of ethnic communities and minorities still are disenfranchised.
They got some firepower late Wednesday from big business — namely Tyco, Comcast, Disney and CBS Corp.
"Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act reinforces the importance we as a nation attach to each vote cast by every adult American," CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves wrote to congressional leaders. "I look forward to saluting you and your colleagues when this important task is successfully completed."
Congress has far to go before that. The objections from House conservatives are being echoed by their colleagues across the Capitol. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wondered Wednesday on the Senate floor why Congress had to rush to renew the law when it doesn't expire until next year.
Back in the House, the amendment with the most appeal, sponsored by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, would renew the law for a decade, rather than 25 years. Another, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., would make it easier for cities and towns to be crossed off the list of localities that must get Justice Department approval before changing voting rules.
A third amendment, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would strike the act's requirement that jurisdictions with high populations of voters who speak languages other than English print multilingual ballots.