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Senate Votes to Consider COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 4/14/2021 Lisa Hagen
Mazie Hirono wearing a suit and tie: WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13: U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) speaks during a press conference on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act at the U.S. Capitol on April 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. The legislation aims to address the rise of hate crimes and violence targeted at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images) © (Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images) WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13: U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) speaks during a press conference on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act at the U.S. Capitol on April 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. The legislation aims to address the rise of hate crimes and violence targeted at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

The Senate overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to move forward with consideration of hate crimes legislation aiming to combat violence toward Asian Americans as lawmakers seek bipartisan consensus in a divided chamber.

In a 92-6 vote, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act cleared a motion to proceed and opens up debate on a measure that would require Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint a Department of Justice official to expedite a review of reported hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would also direct Garland to provide guidance for state and local law enforcement agencies for establishing online reporting, "culturally appropriate" public education campaigns and data collection.

The narrow bill, co-authored by Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, initially encountered GOP skepticism over what it would accomplish but most Republicans ultimately agreed to at least allow for debate since there will be a bipartisan amendment process. While nothing is set in stone going forward, it opens the door to a potential – and rare – moment of bipartisan compromise to pass a bill that addresses a persistent issue plaguing the U.S.

The measure easily reached the 60-vote threshold to move to debate and avoid a legislative filibuster. In a divided 50-50 Senate where Democrats have a narrow advantage, the party needs at least 10 Republicans to join them to move forward on legislation.

"The AAPI community is uniting to confront the epidemic of discrimination, racism and hate," Hirono, who was the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, said before the procedural vote. "Now it's time for Congress to act."

Since the pandemic hit the U.S. last year, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has experienced an uptick in attacks and discrimination. Democrats and activists believe the rise in violence can be attributed in part to former President Donald Trump's derogatory and racist rhetoric about the origin of the virus that was further amplified by some Republican allies. The bill gained traction last month after a mass shooting killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in Georgia.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said he's working on a deal with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on the amendment process and which ones will get a vote. Schumer noted that he'll first bring up one from Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas that would train law enforcement agencies on using a national reporting system and provide grants to create state-run hate crimes hotlines.

"The entire Senate ought to stand up against the recent surge of anti-Asian violence," Schumer said Wednesday morning. "We should be able – and should really try in earnest – to reach a final resolution and pass the bill through the Senate very, very soon. Taking a step back for the moment, this is how the process should work in a closely divided Senate."

Hirono has described her bill as a "non-controversial" measure that encourages voluntary participation by state and local law enforcement. She told reporters on Capitol Hill that Republicans have filed 20 amendments, though Schumer will have to negotiate with McConnell on what moves forward since "some have absolutely nothing to do with the bill." Schumer reiterated on Wednesday that amendments must be "germane" to the issue of hate crimes.

"At least we passed the first hurdle, which I didn't know that we would pass," Hirono told reporters with a laugh. "I would like this to be a bipartisan bill. … We shall see where they end up."

The day before the vote, Republicans said they wouldn't block the bill from consideration and debate in hopes of making adjustments through the upcoming amendment process. The timeline for the bill is still uncertain as is potential GOP support for final passage.

"I can tell you, 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 were recently on full display, and I'm hoping we can work out an agreement," McConnell, who is married to former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, said Tuesday.

While President Joe Biden has urged Congress to pass the bill, the White House has taken its own steps to address the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Less than a week after taking office, Biden issued an executive order in late January condemning anti-Asian racism occurring during the pandemic.

Prior to the shootings in Georgia, Biden had spoken in a prime-time address condemning the discrimination and targeting of those in the AAPI community. And late last month, Biden announced additional efforts to combat these hate crimes by reinstating a White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the creation of a subcommittee on the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force aimed at addressing anti-Asian xenophobia.

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