Senate approves hate crimes bill

Bill attached to defense spending, but could be vetoed by Obama

By Lisa Keen

The Senate approved the long-sought Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act by a voice vote on the night of July 16. The measure, however, was approved as an amendment to an annual defense spending bill. While President Barack Obama has long supported the hate crimes legislation, he adamantly opposed additional funding for the purchase of stealth fighter jets, a program he is trying to eliminate.

White House LGBT press liaison Shin Inouye released a statement Friday, July 17, saying:

"The President has long supported the hate crimes bill and gave his personal commitment to Judy Shepard that we will enact an inclusive bill. Unfortunately, the President will have to veto the Defense Authorization bill if it includes wasteful spending for additional F-22s." Inouye added that such a veto "would not indicate any change in President Obama's commitment to seeing the hate crimes bill enacted."

Sen. John McCain introduced an amendment to strip out the money for the jets that he and the Pentagon agree could be better spent. But many in Congress wanted to keep spending money on new F-22s because their production employs thousands of people working for hundreds of subcontractors in 44 states.

However, the matter was settled Tuesday, July 21 in a win for Obama as the Senate slashed the $1.75 billion for the jets from the bill in a 58-40 vote.

Only in Washington could the fate of a bill to combat hate crimes be tied to the fate of seven stealth fighter jets.

Here's how this odd couple of hate crimes and defense spending came to be so entwined: Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Democratically controlled Senate couldn't get Republican cooperation to consider a stand-alone hate crimes bill. The legislation seeks to add sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the existing federal hate crimes law. Some Republicans have opposed it as violating the First Amendment right of citizens to express their hatred of gays and others. They warned the law might be used to prosecute religious leaders who espouse disapproval for homosexuality, for instance, before their congregations.

Reid said passing the measure as an amendment to the DOD authorization bill then became the expedient way to gain passage. Republicans - including Sen. McCain - cried foul, saying it was attaching a non-germane issue to a much-needed defense funding bill. But, in fact, it has been a common tactic in the Senate - one used for years by senators such as Jesse Helms to attach all manner of anti-gay amendments to various funding measures.

But this time, it appears to be working in favor of LGBT Americans. Supporters of the bill are calling this attempt the greatest chance the bill has had of passing in its 12-year history.

Death penalty problems

However, problems from the hate crimes legislation are still on the horizon that could cause the bill to lose support in Congress. The most troublesome is a measure introduced by conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to allow for the death penalty to be administered with some hate crimes. This so-called "poison pill" could cause some senators to back out on their support of the bill, hindering its passage.

But the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBT community's primary lobbying group, said it "strongly opposes" the attachment of the death penalty amendments to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention language. The group said the death penalty provisions for hate-motivated murders were added by opponents of the hate crimes amendment in hopes of derailing it.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, echoed their sentiments.

The overall defense spending bill now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to hammer out a final version for passage. It is there, HRC hopes the death penalty measures will be removed from the Senate bill and the F-22 funding will be removed from the House version.

But Brad Luna, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said his group is "very confident" the support exists in both chambers to keep the hate crimes measure in the bill.

The hate crimes bill passed as stand-alone legislation in the House in April. And in the Senate July 16, a roll call vote to force consideration of the hate crimes amendment passed by a 63 to 28 margin.

"There may be some bumps along the way," said Luna, "but it will get there."

Luna also pointed out that the statement from the White House noted that the president gave Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy, his "personal commitment" that the hate crimes measure will be enacted.

The hate crimes measure was attached to the DOD authorization bill in 2007, only to be stripped out during a House-Senate conference committee. That same scenario could be building now, especially since many Republicans oppose the hate crimes measure. McCain, the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, derided consideration of the hate crimes amendment last week as jeopardizing "the nation's security" and "the needs of the men and women who are serving our military."

Check and next week's issue of Between The Lines for updates on this and other pending national and local LGBT legislation.

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