Senate approves expansion of federal hate-crime law

Measure is attached to defense bill, in bid to block veto

September 28, 2007|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday 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, an Oregon Republican, 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.

The legislation - the first major expansion of the hate-crime statute passed in 1968 - would expand the law to 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 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 while Republicans controlled Congress. Smith, who has championed the measure with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, has entered a hate crime into the Senate record almost every day for seven years.

The bill's supporters said they hope the hate-crime legislation will 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.

Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Pelosi is "committed to doing all she can to make sure the bill is enacted."

The White House offered no sign 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, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Opponents said the bill would needlessly create special classes of victims.

"All crimes of violence are crimes of hate," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, contended that the hate-crime provision jeopardizes a bill that would provide armored vehicles and pay raises for the troops.

Nine Republicans joined all of the Democrats and both independents, voting 60-39 to take up the hate-crime measure. All the no votes were cast by Republicans. The amendment then passed on a voice vote.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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