Congress is poised to expand federal hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation, attaching it to a defense bill that could still run into trouble because it tests President Obama’s will to cut spending.
The House on Thursday voted 281-146 to pass the 2010 defense bill, which lays out Pentagon priorities for the next year and sets the rules for thorny issues such as treatment of suspected terrorists. The Senate still needs to act, though passage is expected.
“It’s a very exciting day for us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called expanding hate-crimes laws to include sexual orientation a long-standing goal of hers.
But Republican leaders said the bill criminalized “thought crimes” and complained bitterly that Democrats forced the provision through as part of the defense bill.
“Our troops and their families deserve better,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Complicating matters, the bill also calls on the Pentagon to continue work on an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. President Obama and the Pentagon have tried to kill funding for the alternate engine, arguing it’s wasteful and duplicative.
Mr. Obama even issued a statement of policy earlier this year saying he would consider vetoing the bill if Congress’ push for the second engine interferes with the production schedule. On Thursday, it was unclear whether he would follow through.
“We are studying the whole bill,” said Kenneth Baer, communications director for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “As was made clear in the statement of administration policy, if the final bill calls for further investment in a second engine, the Defense Department will carefully evaluate the impact of that before making a recommendation to the president about whether or not to veto the legislation.”
Mr. Obama has promised to cull the budget of unneeded or wasteful programs, and did manage to convince lawmakers to end another fighter jet program. But the F-35 will prove to be a real test for how far he is willing to go to irk Congress in the cause of spending cuts.
The Pentagon is counting on an engine built by Pratt & Whitney, but lawmakers want a second engine built by General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce. The second engine would mean lucrative contracts would be extended to new states - an enticement for many lawmakers.
The final bill authorizes spending $560 million on the second engine, but lawmakers rewrote the funding to try to make the provision more palatable to Mr. Obama.
The bill rewrites the rules for military commissions by restricting use of hearsay or coerced evidence and giving defense lawyers more resources, but it allowed military commissions to proceed. Civil rights groups said Democrats missed an opportunity to stop them altogether.
The bill also prevents Mr. Obama from transferring detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until 45 days after he has submitted a detailed plan to Congress for how the transfers will happen.
A hate crimes law has been on the books for decades, but under the expanded law the Justice Department could investigate crimes where someone was targeted because of his or her actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The bill also makes it a crime to target someone in the military.
Forty-four Republicans joined 237 Democrats in voting for the bill, while 15 Democrats joined 131 Republicans in opposing it. Most of those Republicans said they would have liked to vote for the measure, but attaching the hate crimes bill was more than they could stomach.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, said Democrats “pervert the annual national military strategy bill” by including the hate crimes provision. Mr. Bartlett said it’s the first time in his nine terms in Congress that he’s voted against a defense authorization bill.
A separate procedural vote to strip out the hate crimes provision failed 216-208, with two members voting “present.”