Legislation long sought by Democrats that would expand federal hate-crime laws to cover gay and transgendered people has won approval in the Senate, raising expectations among supporters that the time has finally come for it to be enacted.
“The Senate made a strong statement this evening that hate crimes have no place in America,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
The legislation, named the Matthew Shepard Act after the gay University of Wyoming student beaten to death in 1998, would impose longer prison sentences for offenses motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
It also would make it easier for federal prosecutors to pursue hate-crime charges when local authorities do not.
If enacted, it would be the largest expansion of federal hate-crime laws since they were created in 1968 in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Federal law currently imposes extended sentences only on crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.
The Senate approved the expanded hate-crime bill by voice vote late Thursday night after a 63-28 procedural vote that broke a Republican filibuster. Republicans cast all 28 votes against the bill, but there were also five Republicans who voted for it, delivering crucial support to reach the 60-vote threshold.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, led the opposition to the amendment, saying it was irrelevant to the defense bill, to which it was attached, and deserved to be debated at length as stand-alone legislation.
Furthermore, he argued the bill was unnecessary.
“Our legal system is based on identifying, capturing and punishing criminals, and not on using the power of government to try to divine biases,” Mr. McCain said during floor debate. “Crimes motivated by hate deserve vigorous prosecution, but so do crimes motivated by absolute wanton disregard for life of any kind.”
Religious groups also oppose the bill, saying it will infringe upon free-speech rights to preach against homosexuality.
The measure still faces an uncertain fate. It was passed as an amendment to a defense bill, and the survival of the hate-crime legislation will depend on the political currents that carry the underlying bill to President Obama’s desk.
The test will come in a conference committee, where Senate and House negotiators reconcile the chambers’ separate versions of the defense-authorization bill, which delineates Pentagon spending for fiscal 2010.
The underlying bill has become a magnet for partisan and interparty conflict, with opposition to White House plans to cut missile-defense spending and eliminate the F-22 fighter jet.
“It’s too soon to tell,” a senior Democratic aide said privately, not wanting to handicap legislation popular with the leadership. “It depends on what other controversial issues are part of the conference report.”
The House passed a similar stand-alone bill in April in a 249-175 vote, and Mr. Obama supports the legislation.
Emboldened by having a Democrat in the White House, supporters are optimistic it will be signed into law this year.
Senate Democrats have pushed the hate-crimes legislation since 1993 and successfully attached it to two of the past three defense-authorization bills, though both times it was removed in negotiating a final version with the House.
“Today’s key vote [moves] this legislation one step closer to the president’s desk,” said a statement by Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. “It is past time we take this important step toward combating hate in our country.”