Senate Votes to Extend Hate-Crimes Law to Gays

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

The Senate yesterday approved an expansion of federal hate-crimes law to include protections for gay men and lesbians, defying a presidential veto threat by attaching the measure to a high-priority defense bill.

Republicans said they will try to remove the provision in final negotiations with the House, but if that effort fails, GOP leaders urged President Bush to follow through with his long-standing veto threat. They were furious this week when Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would force a vote on an expanded hate-crimes statute, with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) calling Reid's maneuver a "shameful" attempt to "hijack" essential defense legislation.

Democrats argued that the amendment addresses terrorism of a different form. "The defense authorization is about dealing with the challenges of terrorism overseas," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This is about terrorism in our neighborhood."

The amendment is called the Matthew Shepard Act, named for a young gay man who was beaten and left to die on a fence near Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. The proposal has passed the House or Senate several times over the years but has never cleared the entire Congress.

When Democrats won control of both chambers in November, advocates saw their best opportunity yet for strengthening a federal law that has existed since 1968 and has focused on race, color, religion and national origin.

The Senate amendment was approved by voice vote, after Democrats broke a GOP filibuster by securing exactly the 60 votes needed, with 39 Republicans voting to block the measure from moving forward. An identical House bill passed by 237 to 180 in May, with 25 Republicans supporting the measure and 14 Democrats opposing it.

"For over a decade, our community has worked tirelessly to ensure protections to combat violence motivated by hate, and today we are the closest we have ever been to seeing that become a reality," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. "The new leadership in Congress fully understands that for too long our community has been terrorized by hate violence."

Under the Senate amendment, the definition of a hate crime would expand to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Local law enforcement officials would be allowed to apply for federal grants to solve such crimes, and federal agents would be given broader authority to assist state and local police. More stringent federal sentencing guidelines would also be instituted.

Republicans counter that the expansion represents an unnecessary intrusion by the federal government. "We believe that local -- state and local law enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent that they can," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Perino would not say whether Bush will veto the defense bill specifically because of the new language, citing other provisions in the legislation that the administration also opposes.

"Given that there are so many different things that a senior adviser might recommend a veto on, I'm not going to say specifically on this, but our position has been consistent," Perino said.

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