WASHINGTON -- The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened polls to millions of black Americans, is on its way to President Bush's desk after winning a 25-year extension from Congress.
The president promised to sign it even before the 98-0 vote, eager to improve the GOP's standing with minorities.
"The Voting Rights Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation's history," Bush said after the Senate approval on Thursday. "It has been vital to guaranteeing the right to vote for generations of Americans and has helped millions of our citizens enjoy the full promise of freedom."
A centerpiece of the 1960s civil rights movement, the law ended poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices that had been used for decades to keep blacks from voting.
"The Voting Rights Act has worked. It has achieved its intended purpose," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who timed the Senate's debate to occur while Bush made his first-ever address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The House passed the bill last week 390-33 with opposition mostly from Southern lawmakers who objected to renewing a law that requires their states win Justice Department approval before changing any voting rules -- punishment, they said, for racist practices decades in the past.
Some also objected to provisions that require jurisdictions with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to print ballots in languages other than English.
Several Southern senators echoed the concerns of their House counterparts, but there were few obstacles to passage in that chamber.
"Is this the very best that we can do at this time? Yes, it is," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The nine states required to win Justice Department approval for any voting practice changes are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Other senators said the act was still necessary and pointed to congressional hearings that showed certain districts still make it harder for minorities and citizens with limited understanding of English to be informed when they cast ballots.
Two senators did not vote: Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.