Congressional Democrats forged ahead Wednesday night with two of their main priorities in dealing with grievances over race.
In a strictly party-line vote, Democrats on a House committee advanced a bill that would create a commission to study paying reparation for slavery to Black Americans.
It was a historic moment for proponents of reparations, marking the furthest the idea has gotten in Congress in the 30 years since it was first introduced.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, and the bill’s sponsor, ticked off several atrocities Blacks have faced through history, from slavery to lynchings and being barred from living in certain areas.
Those living today may not have been responsible for slavery, she said, but the mistakes of the past still need to be repaired.
“It was America’s sin and that’s what we’re hoping to address,” she said. “Reparation is not a handout. It is restoration. It is reconciliation. It is healing.”
The House Judiciary Committee pushed the bill forward over the vehement protests from Republicans who said the legislation itself was discriminatory and would inflame racial tensions in the U.S.
“We’re going to take money from people who never were involved in the evil of slavery and give it to people who were never subject to the evil of slavery,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, of Ohio, the committee’s top Republican.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats and Republicans managed to find common ground on a bill tackling anti-Asian hate crimes.
Senate Republicans initially dismissed the Democratic legislation that would encourage Asian Americans to report incidents of racial harassment as a “messaging bill” and threatened to block it. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, struck an agreement with Democratic leaders to open debate on the bill and allow for votes on amendments.
Mr. McConnell, who is married to former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, paved the way for Republican support in a floor speech on Tuesday.
“I can tell you as a proud husband of an Asian American woman, I think the discrimination against Asian Americans is a real problem,” Mr. McConnell said.
The Senate voted 92-6 to let the bill be considered.
“The legislation will send a clear message that racism against Asian American citizens has no place in society,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor, said Republicans would try to remove language from the bill that blames former President Donald Trump’s use of terms like “China Virus” for inciting harassment.
“They want to take out the hatemonger stuff,” she said.
The legislation responded to recent claims of increasing attacks and harassment of Asian Americans during a coronavirus pandemic that began in Wuhan, China. Ambiguous and incomplete statistics on Asian hate crimes, however, raise questions about whether the problem is getting worse.
To conservatives, the House Judiciary Committee’s passage of the reparations bill reflects a fundamentally wrong approach by Democrats that judges people based on the color of their skin.
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the reparations movement is part of the Biden administration’s “racial equity” agenda.
“Equity doesn’t mean fairness or equality. It means treating Americans unequally [based on race]. How do they think that’s legal?” he said.
To proponents, though, giving reparations only to Black Americans would be an acknowledgment that past discrimination has contributed to White people continuing to be wealthier than Black people long after the end of slavery.
Despite the advancement of a reparations bill in Congress, actual payments are not close at hand.
The bill would only set up a commission to discuss the idea. It also is uncertain if it will pass the full House. The bill also would face fierce Republican opposition in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
“I think the idea of reparations is a mistake,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said in an interview.
“I don’t think the government ought to be discriminating based on race. Slavery was the original sin of this nation,” he said. “We fought a bloody civil war to eradicate that horrific practice but everyone involved in slavery has long since passed.”