WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday attached legislation to help states prosecute attacks on homosexuals to a bill funding the war in Iraq in an effort to force President Bush to sign it into law. Opponents, citing a Bush veto threat, predicted it ultimately would fail.
"The president is not going to agree to this social legislation on the defense authorization bill," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Nonetheless, the Senate agreed by voice vote — with no dissenting votes — to attach the hate-crimes provision to a pending defense authorization bill that designates billions of federal dollars to the Defense Department and the Iraq war.
The Democratic-controlled House passed the same hate crimes legislation as a stand-alone bill earlier this year despite Bush's veto threat. That makes a repeat of 2004, when the Senate passed a similar amendment to the same bill only to see it stripped out during negotiations with the Republican-led House, less likely this time around. President Bush, who says the bill is not needed, could then be faced with vetoing the vast defense authorization bill containing the same provision.
Bush believes that "all people should be protected from violent crimes," but that states have their own hate crime laws, many more strict than what is being proposed, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"We believe that state and local law enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent they can," Perino said. She wouldn't comment on the prospects for a veto.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay college freshman who was beaten into a coma in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. He died five days later.
Writing violent attacks on gays into federal hate crime laws is an appropriate add-on to legislation funding the war, Democrats argued, because both initiatives are aimed at combating terrorist acts.
"The defense authorization is about dealing with the challenges of terrorism overseas...This (bill) is about terrorism in our neighborhood," said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chief Democratic sponsor. "We want to fight terrorism here at home with all of our weapons."
That's a stretch, not to mention a heavy-handed maneuver that "hijacks" a bill that includes a pay increase for troops in wartime, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"I think it's shameful we're changing the subject to take care of special interest legislation at a time like this," Cornyn said on the Senate floor.
Other Republicans complained that states should remain the chief prosecutors of such crimes, as in current law.
"Absent a clear demonstration that the states have failed in their law-enforcement responsibilities, the federalization of hate crimes is premature," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who proposed instead a study of the matter in a separate amendment. That measure passed as well, 96-3.
Attaching hard-to-pass legislation to weighty bills is a well-established strategy used by lawmakers of both parties, no matter who controls the chamber. Success means forcing squeamish lawmakers to technically vote for controversial policies embedded in massive spending bills — then hold them accountable at re-election time.
The White House has contended that state and local laws already cover the new crimes defined under the hate crimes proposal and that there is no need to provide federal sanctions for what could be a wide range of violent crimes.
The hate crimes amendment is especially tempting for majority Democrats because of Bush's weakened, lame-duck status and some support for the measure among Republicans.
Republicans were careful not to attack the intent of the legislation, focusing instead on what they said was the "non-germane" nature of the amendment to the overall spending bill.
"There may be a time and place for a hate crimes discussion, but it is certainly not now when national security legislation is being held up," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona. "Forcing a vote on the so-called hate crimes amendment shows an utter lack of seriousness about our national defense."
Retorted Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.: "For some, it never seems to be the right time or the right place."
Under current federal law, hate crimes apply to acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color or national origin. Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction only if the victim is engaged in a specific federally protected activity such as voting.
The House bill would extend the hate crimes category to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability and give federal authorities greater leeway to participate in hate crime investigations. It would approve $10 million over the next two years to help local law enforcement officials cover the cost of hate crime prosecutions.
Federal investigators could step in if local authorities were unwilling or unable to act.