- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

A Republican senator wants to establish a temporary congressional committee on race relations that will address such issues as a national apology for racial segregation, construction of a black history museum on the National Mall and reparations for slavery.
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said he will broach the subject officially with his Republican colleagues as they meet and organize this week on Capitol Hill. He said "feedback has been positive" since he sent a letter proposing the special committee to incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
"I think in light of what took place with the Senate leadership change, we need to step up and seriously address the race issues," Mr. Brownback told The Washington Times. "Unless the Republican Party steps up and addresses it, we'll be constantly taking charges that we're not sensitive on race issues."
Democrats have intensified racial criticism of Republicans since Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi lost his Senate leadership job after making comments Dec. 5 that were widely seen as nostalgic for segregation.
In his letter to Mr. Frist on Dec. 23, Mr. Brownback said Republicans could "improve our standing in the African-American community" by backing the creation of a National Museum of African-American History on the Mall and setting up a congressional committee on race relations.
"In the past, we have created special committees of the Senate on important subjects," Mr. Brownback wrote. "We must engage all facets of the issue of race relations in America. The Republicans must continue to be a catalyst for positive change."
Mr. Brownback said a race committee would be preferable to the status quo, "a series of ad hoc initiatives, none of which gives us the comprehensive view that we need on race relations."
While offering few specifics on what the committee would take up, Mr. Brownback said he envisions it being a forum for the Senate to address "disparities in education, disparities in economic opportunity, apologies [for slavery and segregation]. Those would be the ones that I think ought to be put forward, but others would come forward, too."
Mr. Brownback said in an interview Friday that the idea of this committee came to him when Congress held hearings in 2001 to establish a Smithsonian-run National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the Mall. Congress passed a resolution to set up a "presidential commission" to develop a "plan of action" to make it happen. A report is due in April.
Mr. Brownback, who said he was moved by the "depth of anger and bitterness" expressed by some of the witnesses to the 2001 hearings, says now is the time to bring up the museum and other race matters again and for Republicans to lead the way.
"I think those [racial issues] need to be brought out and then solutions sought to make better the American experience for all Americans," Mr. Brownback said. "This gives [Republicans] an opening to address these issues and get support from the African-American community."
Mr. Brownback said he envisions the committee as temporary, bipartisan and probably including senators and members of the House of Representatives.
Few Republican Senate offices returned calls for comment, and many in the party leadership said they were not familiar with the details of Mr. Brownback's proposal last week.
"Senators will meet in conference when they get back and will come up with ideas that will move the country forward," said a spokesman for Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican.
If Republicans don't address racial issues directly with this special committee, Mr. Brownback said, "we'll be put on the defensive" at nearly every legislative turn, especially when President Bush's judicial nominations are submitted.
David Almasi, director of Project 21, a conservative black think tank, said he is skeptical about Mr. Brownback's proposal.
"It could be used as a weapon against [Republicans]," he said.
Mr. Almasi said Republicans should take a lesson from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which was set up on a temporary basis during the Eisenhower administration. The chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, has used her position on the commission to bash the Bush administration. It took a federal court ruling to allow Bush administration selection Peter N. Kirsanow, a conservative, to take his seat.
The new Senate committee, Mr. Almasi said, might change into something different than Mr. Brownback's "altruistic" vision.
"I'd hate to see that happen on Capitol Hill," Mr. Almasi said. "There's lots of temporary things on Capitol Hill. This is just asking for trouble down the line."
Asked if the committee could be used to give momentum to the idea of paying reparations to black Americans for slavery long a pet project of Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat Mr. Brownback said, "I think we clearly need to bring that up as a topic."

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