Washington — After sailing smoothly through the House of Representatives by a wide margin and winning 61 co-sponsors in the Senate, the Voting Rights Act is facing rough seas.
Despite impressive victories, the House-passed bill faces an uncertain future as it faces a critical panel under Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution.
Already the Republican leaders have pulled a surprise by canceling hearings Jan. 19, one day before they were scheduled to begin on the bill, which supporters say is the most important civil rights legislation of the year. The Reagan administration requested the delay, at least until next week, while it prepares its bill.
President Reagan, who has criticized some points in the House-passed measure, has come under heavy attack recently from civil rights leaders.
Said to be the most successful civil rights law ever passed, the 1965 Voting Rights Act has opened the poll booth to black voters in the South. Once, Southern states used literacy tests and poll taxes to exclude minority voters. Now, more than 2,000 blacks hold elective offices in those same states.
While the Voting Rights Act ban on literacy tests and other ''Jim Crow'' practices is permanent, other protections of the law effectively run out beginning next August. Almost every lawmaker on Capitol Hill is now giving at least some support for renewing those provisions. But when the Senate hearings on renewal begin, probably next week, two key points will be at the center of the debate.
Most important in the Hatch hearings will almost certainly be new language inserted in the House measure to ban any voting procedure that has the ''effect'' of discriminating by race. The new wording touched off little controversy during several months of hearings and debate on the House side.
According to the civil rights community, the new wording would merely clarify the original meaning of the Voting Rights Act for the courts. Two years ago the US Supreme Court ruled in a case involving Mobile, Ala., that a challenger must prove that an election scheme was devised intentionally to dilute minority voting power.
Proving intent is virtually impossible, say civil rights lawyers. They say that the act was designed to cover discriminatory results, not just intent.
Senator Hatch has singled out this issue for his thrust at the House-passed bill. He holds it as a threat to local governments all over the country.
''We think it will undermine some of the more traditional American concepts of democracy,'' says Stephen J. Markman, Republican counsel to the Hatch subcommittee. The ''effects'' language clears the way for requiring ''proportional representation,'' in which any government can be challenged unless its elected officials reflect the racial population, according to the subcommittee attorney. Moreover, Mr. Markman holds that proving ''intent'' is not impossible, that it is proved every day in criminal cases.
Civil rights supporters counter that such ''scare stories'' would not come true. But they will need to build a convincing case to win over the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A second hotly contested issue surrounds the so-called ''bail-out'' from pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Under current law, nine targeted states and parts of 13 others must ''pre-clear'' all voting changes - from redistricting to relocating a poll booth - through the Department of Justice in Washington. Most of the covered states are in the South.
The House-passed version provides for localities to bail out of this requirement if they can prove they have a clean record on voting rights. Critics in the House raised the charge that the bail-out standards are difficult if not impossible to meet. The same issue is coming up again in the Senate.
The civil rights community has united behind the House-passed version and so far has managed to hold on to its 61 Senate co-sponsors, despite rumors of weakening support. Even a number of Southern lawmakers are on the bandwagon, despite the fact that the targeted states are almost all in the South.
''It affects a large portion of our population,'' explains an aide to Sen. -Russell B. Long (D) of Louisiana, one of the co-sponsors. ''He hasn't changed his mind,'' says the spokesman, but that ''is not to say he would vote against any amendment.''
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, perennial opponent of extending the Voting Rights Act, has been noticeably quiet on the subject. However, even if his committee fails to act quickly on the bill, proponents have already laid the groundwork for taking an end-run around the Judiciary and going straight to the Senate floor.