Democrats dare GOP to filibuster Asian American hate crimes bill

Democrats dare GOP to filibuster Asian American hate crimes bill

Originally Published in Politico

Nicholas Wu, Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett - April 12, 2021

No final decision has been made, but some Republicans see it as an overreach and others think it's just a messaging bill.

Volunteers of Main Street Patrol connect their walkie-talkie apps before walking up and down the streets of Flushing on Sunday, April 4 in New York.Volunteers of Main Street Patrol connect their walkie-talkie apps before walking up and down the streets of Flushing on April 4 in New York. From coast-to-coast, Asian American groups were already doing more than digital activism, including patrolling, escorting, and chaperoning in Asian communities. | Brittainy Newman/AP Photo

Senate Republicans are weighing whether to mount the first official filibuster of the new Congress — a move that would re-ignite debate over whether the minority has too much power to block most bills.

The legislation in question, a modest anti-Asian American hate crimes bill, is also forcing Republicans to confront their diminished standing in a Washington where they no longer set the political agenda.

Democrats, for their part, are daring the 50-vote minority to block the modest legislation amid a spike in hate incidents against Asian Americans during the pandemic. While the GOP has yet to make a conference-wide decision, Wednesday’s vote could serve as a data point for Democratic senators seeking to persuade more of their colleagues to scrap the 60-vote threshold that has left some of President Joe Biden's most progressive priorities to languish in the upper chamber.

But other GOP senators dismiss the legislation, championed by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) as a way to enhance federal coordination against hate crimes, as unnecessary and a potential government overreach.

“My understanding is it doesn’t do much,” said Sen John Cornyn (R-Texas), who said he still needs to review the legislation. “It’s just a messaging vote, it sounds to me.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key moderate, added that the bill had “drafting problems that I hope can be corrected. For example, it seems to say that the hate crime has to be linked to Covid, which is rather odd.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described the decision before the GOP as a test for the filibuster as the party weighs whether to engage on the issue. After all, Durbin observed: "Who can’t say that hate crimes against Asian Americans and others [are] reprehensible?”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer chose the relatively narrow hate crimes bill for his first use of legislative floor time after he successfully steered Biden’s Covid recovery plan into law. That selection in itself, as opposed to an alternate bipartisan proposal designed to tackle rising bias crimes, suggests that Democrats may see an upside in teeing up a filibuster fight on a politically popular topic like preventing discrimination.

Calling it “unobjectionable,” Schumer pleaded with Senate Republicans to let the bill “go forward and pass with a strong bipartisan vote.”

The bill “sends a very important signal from the Congress to the American public: These crimes will not be tolerated and there will be consequences,” Schumer said.

Schumer needs at least 10 Republican votes to open debate and again on final passage.

“I’d love to see a bipartisan result here. But in some ways it goes too far, in our view,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Even some Democrats questioned the process that led to the vote this week. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked Monday why the bill isn’t going through regular committee order, as opposed to a “snap vote” on the floor.

“It’s not a bullshit topic, it’s a really serious topic,” Kaine said. “Why wouldn’t we have a committee hearing and have witnesses to talk about the trauma this is visiting upon Asian Americans because there’s a real fear out there. Why wouldn’t we do that? Have a markup in committee? We control the committees.”

Hirono's bill would designate an official at the Justice Department to expedite the review of Covid-related hate crimes, beef up guidance for state and local hate crime reporting and ask federal agencies to provide a general framework for avoiding racially discriminatory language when describing the pandemic. It currently lacks any Republican co-sponsors.

Hirono said she was not confident the bill would receive enough GOP support to break a filibuster. “Anything that the Democrats are putting forward as important, the Republicans tend to not support. There you have it,” she said.

In addition to Hirono’s bill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) this week reintroduced a measure with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) that would create grants to help state and local governments improve hate crime reporting. A companion bill in the House is also bipartisan.

Should Republicans decide to block the bill, it would be their first filibuster since 2014, when they were last in the minority.

“I will be honest: I’m not inclined to create another category of crime,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Monday evening.

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