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In Rare Moment Of Bipartisan Unity, Senate Approves Asian American Hate Crimes Bill

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., addresses a news conference last week in Washington. Hirono introduced the legislation in the Senate.
Jose Luis Magana
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., addresses a news conference last week in Washington. Hirono introduced the legislation in the Senate.

Capping nearly two weeks of talks between Democrats and Republicans, the Senate approved legislation on Thursday to ramp up law enforcement efforts to better protect the Asian American and Pacific Islander community from hate crimes.

The move marks a rare moment of bipartisan unity needed to approve the Senate legislation despite a new political era marked by increasingly bitter party divisions.

The bill, which needed 60 votes for passage in the evenly divided Senate, was approved by a 94-1 vote. Only GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri voted no.

"The vote today on the anti-Asian hate crimes bill is proof that when the Senate is given the opportunity to work, the Senate can work to solve important issues," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said ahead of the vote.

The bill next heads to the House, where it's being led by Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York and is expected to gain approval. Following House passage, it will go to President Biden's desk. Biden had urged approval for hate crimes legislation in the wake of a March shooting in Georgia that left several women of Asian descent dead.

The legislation, introduced by Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono in the Senate, saw a breakthrough late Wednesday during negotiations with Republicans. GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine helped lead efforts to broaden the original scope of the bill to go beyond hate crimes initiated during the pandemic.

"Senator Collins and I identified changes that will broaden support for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act while retaining the bill's core purpose to combat anti-Asian hate," Hirono said in a statement after the breakthrough in talks.

The legislation does highlight that in a nearly one-year period ending Feb. 28, the country has seen about 3,800 cases of related discrimination and hate crime incidents.

"Crimes motivated by bias against race, national origin, and other characteristics cannot be tolerated," Collins said. "Our amendment both denounces those acts and marshals additional resources toward addressing and stopping these horrible crimes."

The bill was held up in recent days over which amendments Republicans could offer up for floor votes ahead of Thursday's final passage. About 20 were filed, many of which had nothing to do with the bill, Hirono has said.

In the end, the parties agreed to vote on three of those GOP amendments that all failed to garner the 60 votes needed on Thursday.

Schumer said the legislation was the mark of progress since "dark chapters in our history," with accounts of discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community rising under former President Donald Trump.

"Over the past several years, the forces of hate and bigotry seemed to have gained strength too often encouraged by our former president," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "The Senate makes it very clear that hate and discrimination against any group has no place in America. Bigotry against one is bigotry against all."

Through grant programs and other efforts, the legislation incentivizes law enforcement agencies to better track instances of hate crimes and establish related hotlines. It also requires the attorney general to designate a Department of Justice official to initiate a review of such hate crime reports quickly for law enforcement departments across the country.

The attorney general would also direct guidance for agencies to take part in new, related online reporting requirements and efforts to expand public awareness campaigns.

Finally, the measure includes a bipartisan provision authored by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas to allow alternative sentencing during prosecution. In such instances, a defendant could complete educational courses or community service in the communities harmed by the defendant's action.

Schumer said the bill's passage sends two messages: One, the government is in solidarity with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and, two, that hate crimes will not be tolerated.

He also said the bill bodes well for the Senate to work across the aisle again soon, including plans to take up legislation focused on boosting U.S. competition with China in the coming weeks.

"Over the past six years, we've had too few opportunities to work together on timely bipartisan legislation," Schumer said. "Let this be a reminder that when senators of goodwill work with each other, at the end of the day we can achieve a good result. We can do it again."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.