The Senate on Thursday approved a long-debated measure that would expand the federal hate-crime law to cover violence against gays and, in an unusual gambit to make it difficult for President Bush to carry out his veto threat, attached it to a defense bill.
Supporters of the hate-crime legislation mustered the minimum 60 votes they needed to overcome a threatened filibuster. The House approved the bill earlier this year as a stand-alone measure, but neither chamber appears to have the votes to override a veto.
“We have never had this bill with the potential to go as far as it is,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.), one of the chief sponsors, who pleaded for the president to sign it as a “legacy that he can claim on an important civil rights issue.”
Smith stood on the Senate floor next to a photo of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten in Wyoming in 1998 and left to die tied to a fence. The bill is named for Shepard. “What happened to Matthew should happen to no one,” Smith said.
In the first major expansion of the hate-crime statute passed in 1968, the legislation would cover acts of violence motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity. Existing federal law defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias based on religion, race, national origin or color.
The measure, which was also drawn up in response to the 1999 shooting attack by white supremacist Buford O. Furrow on a Jewish community center in the San Fernando Valley, gives federal authorities more leeway to assist state and local law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Passage of the bill caps a nearly decade-long struggle. Though the House and Senate have previously approved hate-crime measures, they never reached the president’s desk when Republicans controlled Congress. Smith, who has championed the measure with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), has entered a hate crime into the Senate record almost every day for the last seven years.
The bill’s supporters said they hoped the hate-crime legislation would be included in a final defense bill that must be pieced together to settle House-Senate differences. Kennedy noted that no president has ever vetoed a defense authorization bill. “We’re very hopeful that the president will sign it,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is “committed to doing all she can to make sure the bill is enacted,” said Brendan Daly, her spokesman.
The White House offered no sign that the president would back down from his veto threat. “We believe that state and local law enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent that they can” to cover hate crimes, spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Gay rights groups applauded the vote. “The new leadership in Congress fully understands that for too long our community has been terrorized by hate violence,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Opponents said the bill would needlessly create special classes of victims.
“All crimes of violence are crimes of hate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) contended that the hate-crime provision jeopardized a bill that would provide armored vehicles and pay raises for the troops.
“When I go to Iraq, I don’t have a lot of people coming up to me and saying we need to pass the hate-crimes bill,” he said. “They do need better body armor.”
But supporters of the hate-crime legislation defended its inclusion in the defense bill. Smith displayed a photo of a gay sailor, Allen Schindler, killed in 1992 who was so severely beaten that Smith said “his own mother could not identify him but for the remains of a tattoo on his arm.”
Some religious groups have assailed the measure as “thought crimes” legislation, warning it could lead to the prosecution of pastors delivering sermons against homosexuality.
Smith responded, “There is nothing in this law that prevents you from saying and thinking anything. . . . But if you think it, you speak it and you act on it, you come under the jurisdiction of local, state and, I hope, federal hate-crimes laws.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said the measure would provide an “extra weapon in our arsenal against violent hate crime in California,” especially in helping smaller jurisdictions with limited resources to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
Nine Republicans joined all of the Democrats and both independents, voting 60 to 39 to take up the hate-crime measure. All the no votes were cast by Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not vote. The amendment then passed on a voice vote.