WASHINGTON – Congress has dropped legislation that would have expanded hate crime laws to include attacks on gays after it became clear the measure wouldn't pass the House, aides said Thursday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, was widely supported by Democrats and even some moderate Senate Republicans. But because it was attached to a major defense policy bill that would have authorized more money for the Iraq war, many anti-war Democrats said they would oppose it.
"We don't have the votes," said one House Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because conference negotiations on the defense bill were ongoing. "We're about 40 votes short, not four or six."
The development is a blow to civil rights groups which say that broadening federal laws are necessary to address a rise in crimes motivated by hate based upon a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The military bill is "the last clear chance this year for Congress to make a meaningful effort to stop hate crime violence," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Under current federal law, hate crimes include 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.
Kennedy's bill would have extended the category to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. It also would give federal authorities greater leeway to participate in hate crime investigations, and allow them to step in if local authorities were unwilling or unable to act.
The measure also would have provided $10 million over the next two years to help local law enforcement officials cover the cost of hate crime prosecutions.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay college freshman who died after he was beaten into a coma in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo.
The Senate voted 60-39 in September to attach the bill as amendment to the 2008 defense authorization bill. Nine Republicans broke ranks and sided with Democrats in support of the measure.
The House did not include similar provisions in its version of the defense bill, which it passed in May by a 397-27 vote.
While Democratic leaders said they supported the bill, the bundled package posed too high a hurdle. A substantial number of liberal House members routinely vote against the annual defense bill because of the billions it authorizes in combat operations and for programs such as missile defense.
At the same time, some conservative Democrats and Republicans said they would oppose the legislation if the hate crimes provisions were attached — either because they don't think hate crimes laws should be changed or because they don't think the issue should be tied to a bill for the troops.
In a private meeting on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Democratic Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., told Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that if the Senate continued to insist on the hate crimes provisions, the defense legislation would fail.
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and other Senate Democratic leaders agreed to back down to allow the defense bill to move forward.
The White House called the Senate bill unnecessary, but stopped short of issuing a veto threat.
"State and local law enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent they can," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino after the Senate vote.
House and Senate negotiators were expected to finalize an agreement on the defense bill by late Thursday afternoon. The agreement puts the measure on track to be sent to the president's desk before lawmakers leave this month for their holiday break.