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Senate passes bill to make Juneteenth, day commemorating the end of slavery in Texas, a federal holiday

In 2020, The Post’s Nicole Ellis visited Galveston, Tex., where Gen. Gordon Granger gave an order that emancipated 250,000 enslaved people on June 19, 1865. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a measure that would establish a federal holiday for Juneteenth, the day that marks the end of slavery in Texas.

The bill now heads to the Democratic-led House, where it is likely to be approved, although the timing remains uncertain.

Unanimous Senate passage was an anticlimactic culmination to a long effort to commemorate Juneteenth, the day that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Tex., received news on June 19, 1865, that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed it.

“Juneteenth commemorates the moment some of the last formerly enslaved people in the nation learned they were free,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past — but we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution.”

The effort gained significant ground in the last Congress, but a July 2020 attempt to pass the bill establishing the holiday was foiled when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) objected to its passage and GOP Senate leaders opted not to expend scarce floor time to get around his objection.

Johnson objected to the cost of granting federal workers an additional paid holiday, and he proposed amendments that would offset the cost by either removing Columbus Day from the list of paid federal holidays or subtracting a day from federal workers’ paid leave.

That proposal prompted sharp criticism from conservative commentators such as Tucker Carlson, who last year accused Johnson and another Republican, Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), of “trying to cancel Columbus Day.”

In a statement Tuesday, Johnson said that while he remained concerned about the cost, which he pegged at $600 million a year, he did not intend to object again.

“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter,” he said.

The Congressional Budget Office has not delivered an official cost estimate for the bill. Johnson’s estimate is based on the wages and salary that would be paid to the federal workforce for the day off, plus overtime for those who would work that day.

Had Johnson not withdrawn his objection, the legislation probably would have faced a tougher path to reaching the Senate floor, since bills that do not have unanimous consent require more time for debate, and the chamber’s leaders have focused that time instead on voting rights, infrastructure and other key parts of their legislative agenda.

The lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), was presiding over the Senate when the bill passed.

“For far too long, the story of our country’s history has been incomplete as we have failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery,” Markey said in a statement after the vote. He said the legislation’s passage “will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) hailed the bill’s passage Tuesday in a tweet that noted Juneteenth has been a Texas state holiday for more than 40 years. “Now more than ever, we need to learn from our history and continue to form a more perfect union,” he said.

Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, applauded the Senate for acting.

“But holidays alone are not enough — there is still much work to be done to build equity, to undo systemic racism, to atone for centuries of brutal treatment of enslaved Africans in America and their descendants,” Henderson said.

Other groups supporting the legislation include the NAACP and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), currently has 166 additional co-sponsors, including two Republicans.

A senior House Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal discussions, said the House leadership is “supportive” and reviewing the Senate-passed bill.