The conservative mood in Washington has brought action to ban school busing for desegregation and a wave of criticism of "affirmative action" programs for hiring minorities. But this week civil rights forces gained a big victory.
They won resounding approval from the House to extend the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 legislation to safeguard the rights of minorities to vote. Combined efforts of Democrats and moderate Republicans rejected every attempt to water down the renewal bill, and in the end it passed on a lopsided 389 to 24 vote.
The victory is only the first step, and probably the easiest, in the effort to retain the provisions of the original act. Supporters now carry their cause to the less friendly Senate, where Judiciary chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina has been a longtime critic of the act. Unless the Senate acts before next August, key provisions of the law will run out.
However, with the House vote, civil rights groups have gained ground. Not only did the bill escape unscathed by amendments, but the overwhelming House vote will put added pressure on the Senate.
"What happened in the House makes it immeasurably easier," says Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of more than 150 groups that has launched a massive lobbying effort for the bill.
It has grown increasingly difficult for lawmakers to oppose the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws literacy tests and other schemes aimed to keep blacks from registering to vote. It also requires eight Southern states and Alaska to preclear all changes in voting laws with the US Justice Department.
Despite some complaints from Southern officials, recent criticism has been muted. In a special election in Mississippi last spring, Democrat Wayne Dowdy ran for the House on a straightforward pro-Voting Right Act platform. He beat out the favored Republican who ran against the act. That loss of a formerly GOP district has been interpreted widely as a warning to others.
The bill passed Oct. 5 makes some changes in the act by setting up a mechanism for allowing jurisdictions that no longer discriminate against minority voter to "bail out" of the preclearance requirement. More than 850 counties (in nine covered states and in parts of 13 others) now fall under the requirement, and civil rights groups say that about 200 would qualify for bailing out by 1984.
Conservatives, led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois, have charged that the bill's provisions would make bailing out practically impossible, but his proposals, as well as an effort to halt bilingual elections, failed. Mr. Hyde has said he expects the Senate to make changes more to his liking.
Counters Mr. Neas, "I would think we'll get a [Senate] bill remarkably similar to this one." He is also hoping that the bipartisan House vote will convince the President to back renewal of the law. President Reagan, who has in hand a Department of Justice study on the issue, has not yet spoken on the specifics of the law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, now involved in hearings on such issues as abortion, crime, and busing, probably will hold hearings on the Voting Rights Act in January. By then it is expected that President Reagan will have taken a stand on the law.