House Republican negotiators yesterday scuttled a Senate-approved proposal to strengthen the nation's long-standing hate-crimes law and extend its coverage to include crimes against gay men and lesbians.
According to sources close to the talks, the proposal was rejected by House members of a conference with the Senate as the negotiators for the two chambers neared completion of work on the 2005 defense authorization bill. The defense bill had been amended by the Senate in June to include the bipartisan proposal to strengthen and update the civil rights-era hate-crimes statute.
The Senate proposal, which was also rejected by House defense negotiators in 2000, would have added crimes based on sexual orientation, gender and disabilities to the existing law that allows federal prosecution of offenses based on race, color, religion or national origin. Financial support would have been provided for state and local investigations and prosecutions of hate crimes.
The proposal would also have eliminated restrictions limiting hate-crime prosecutions to cases where the victims were engaged in federally protected activities, such as voting.
Proponents, led by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), contended the expansion was needed to ensure protection of all hate-crimes victims. Opponents, including prominent House Republican leaders, argued that labeling something a hate crime punished thought rather than action.
The Senate added the Kennedy-Smith proposal to the defense bill because the Senate GOP leadership would not schedule a vote on the hate-crimes initiative and the defense measure was the only vehicle available at the time to force a vote on the issue. The House voted 213 to 186 last month to instruct its negotiators to support the proposal, but the vote was nonbinding and the House conferees did not follow the instructions.
Kennedy issued a statement blaming the White House and House GOP leadership for what he called "reprehensible" action in rejecting the hate-crimes initiative. "We will be back again and again, and we will continue to bring this legislation up every opportunity we can until it is signed into law," he said.