The Senate overwhelmingly passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act Thursday, sending the bill to the House for approval and moving it one step closer to becoming law.
The bill passed 94 to 1, with Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley the only senator to vote against it. It was authored by Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, and passed amid a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
“By [passing this bill], we will send a powerful message of solidarity to the [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] community that the Senate will not be a bystander as anti-Asian violence surges in our country,” Hirono said on the Senate floor.
The bill was modified before its final passage after an agreement was reached between Hirono and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins modifying the amount of time the Justice Department had to name an official responsible for overseeing the investigation into pandemic-related hate crimes. The agreement gives the DOJ one week to name an official, while the original bill allotted just one day.
The bill’s wording on “discriminatory language” was also modified before the final vote. The original bill required guidance “describing best practices to mitigate racially discriminatory language in describing the COVID-19 pandemic,” but the language was changed to guidance “aimed at raising awareness of hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Senate also voted on multiple Republican amendments ahead of the bill’s passage, all of which failed to clear the 60-vote threshold required for their adoption.
The first amendment, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, sought to prohibit discrimination against Asian Americans in higher education, and would have cut off federal funding to colleges and universities that did so. It failed 49 to 48.
The second amendment, led by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, would have launched a DOJ investigation into states’ coronavirus restrictions on religious institutions. Democrats, however, urged senators to vote against it, noting that it would have also struck provisions relating to the reporting and tracking of hate crimes, and it failed 49 to 48.
The third amendment, led by Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, would have modified how hate crimes are reported, but Democrats said that it would scrap key parts of the bill, and urged a vote against it. It failed 46 to 51.
The overall bill was originally faced with the threat of a Republican filibuster, but advanced in the Senate on Apr. 14 after a bipartisan agreement, led by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, would be added. Under the agreement, a separate bill allowing for state and local government grants to help improve hate crime reporting was coupled with Hirono’s original legislation.
The bill picked up widespread GOP support after the compromise was reached, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“As a proud husband of an Asian American woman, I think this discrimination against Asian Americans is a real problem. And it preceded the murders that are on full display,” he told reporters.
“I think it’s an important issue and one that’s worthy of our consideration,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski after the compromise was reached.
The bill has the support of the majority of the House, which is set to vote on it in the coming days. It also has the support of President Joe Biden, who urged Congress to pass it in March.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the ongoing crisis of gender-based and anti-Asian violence that has long plagued our nation,” Biden said in a statement. “I urge Congress to swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.”
The bill’s advancement follows a series of disturbing attacks against Asian Americans across the country. In March, a shooter killed eight people in Atlanta, six of which were Asian women.
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