The Democrat-led Senate yesterday adopted legislation giving homosexuals additional protections under federal hate-crime laws, attaching the measure to the defense authorization bill and daring President Bush to veto it as promised.
“The president of the United States has never vetoed, in the history of the United States, a defense authorization bill,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chief sponsor of the amendment. “For this reason and for many others … the defense authorization deserves to be passed [into law].”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the measure only served to jeopardize the entire bill, including military pay raises, funds for wounded veterans and other popular programs.
“Do we want to protect the defense policy matters in this bill that actually matter to our forces in the field, or do we want to debate political and social issues on this measure?” the Kentucky Republican said in floor debate before the votes.
The amendment, which charges the Justice Department with investigating crimes potentially motivated by sexual orientation as it can for crimes considered racially or religiously motivated, passed on a voice vote after the chamber voted 60-39 to end a filibuster. Forty-nine Democrats, nine Republicans and two independents provided the required 60 votes to proceed to final consideration.
Mr. Kennedy and supporters of the measure, similar to three versions that have failed in the past decade, likened hate crimes to terrorism and said the defense bill is a perfect fit for it.
“The defense authorization is about dealing with the challenges of terrorism overseas. … This [bill] is about terrorism in our neighborhood,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The White House said the bill makes federal crimes out of acts that already are against the law and might violate the Constitution.
“Federalizing of criminal law concerning the violence prohibited by the bill would be constitutional only if done in the implementation of a power granted to the federal government, such as the power to protect federal personnel, to regulate interstate commerce or to enforce equal protection of the laws,” the administration’s policy statement on the bill says.
Democrats say they relish vetoes of the defense bill or legislation to expand the State Children’s Health Care Program, which Mr. Bush also promises to veto. They say it would force congressional Republicans to take politically treacherous positions opposing military programs and health care for children.
“We welcome that debate,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
The legislation, named the Matthew Shepard Act after the homosexual University of Wyoming student beaten to death in 1998, would lower the threshold for victims to prove a crime was motivated by bias and would add to the law crimes targeting a victim because of sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Mr. Shepard’s killers each were given double life sentences and have since told ABC news that money and drugs motivated their actions, not hatred of homosexuals.
The House passed a similar measure as a stand-alone bill May 3, provoking a White House veto threat.
Religious groups are pressing the White House to veto the legislation because, they say, it could criminalize preaching anti-homosexual sermons from the pulpit and endow homosexuals with extra rights.
“All violent crimes are hate crimes and every victim is equally important,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a pro-marriage group that promotes a Judeo-Christian world view.
“We applaud the president’s intention to veto this unconstitutional betrayal of victims’ rights,” he said. “Congress should represent all Americans, not give special protections for some.”
Supporters of the measure say it targets violent acts, not speech, and seeks to combat bigotry and discrimination.
“As a nation dedicated to ideals of equality and mutual understanding, we have a special responsibility to combat bigotry that takes the form of violence,” Mr. Reid said.
The Kennedy amendment, which also provides $5 million over two years to help states prosecute hate crimes, next must survive the merger of the Senate and House defense bills.
Neither the House hate-crime bill nor the Kennedy amendment passed with veto-proof majorities.
Mr. Bush has vetoed just three bills in more than six years in office. He vetoed two bills for federally funded stem-cell research and a $124 billion emergency war-funding bill that included a troop-withdrawal timetable for Iraq.
Congress failed to overturn all three vetoes.