by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act cleared a key hurdle in the US Senate Thursday night. By a margin of 63-28, the Senate voted for cloture, meaning the measure may be brought up for a final vote.
That vote is expected next week, perhaps as early as Monday.
All Senate Democrats present voted for cloture. They were joined by five Republicans - Susan Collins (R-ME), Dick Lugar (R-IN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and George Voinovich (R-OH). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the original sponsor of the bill, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) are ill and did not vote.
An amendment offered by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) stating that the hate crimes bill does not violate the First Amendment was passed. This was regarded as a minor concession to Republicans who have argued that hate crimes legislation unconstitutionally punishes speech.
An amendment proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to "prevent duplication nin the federal government" failed.
In a political maneuver worthy of Lyndon Johnson's tenure as Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) attached the hate crimes bill as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill on Monday.
The defense bill came to the Senate floor Thursday, with the hate crimes provisions were being debated all day and into the night.
The legislation had previously been passed by the US House of Representatives on April 29 by a margin of 249-175. Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the companion bill on the Senate side with 30 co-sponsors, but its future was in doubt because Senate rules require 60 Senators to agree to bring measures to a vote.
Reid's maneuver was intended to side-step the expected filibuster by Republicans and conservative Democrats by attaching the bill to other legislation which all sides want to bring to a vote.
Asked by SGN for comment, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell said, "As a cosponsor of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, I have long felt that any crime against the GLBT community must be prevented and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This amendment will give state and local governments the support of federal authorities, and will send a message that these heinous crimes won't be tolerated."
Washington's senior Senator Patty Murray said in her speech on the floor, "This is a common-sense, bipartisan bill that would stand up for the victims of hate crimes and their families. I'm glad that it is being offered as an amendment and that we will have a chance to act on it this week."
"We cannot stand idly by while Americans are subjected to discrimination, violence and even death simply because of who they are," Sen. Murray concluded. "Passage of this amendment would be another major victory for equal rights in our country. I urge my colleagues to support the amendment."
In his remarks introducing the amendment on Wednesday, Sen. Reid paid tribute to Sen. Kennedy, who has long been a champion of federal protections for the LGBT community, but who is now at home battling brain cancer.
"Senator Kennedy has for many years so courageously fought for the legislation Sen. Leahy and I offered as an amendment today to the Defense Authorization bill," Reid said. "Senator Kennedy has correctly called hate crimes a form of domestic terrorism, and it is our obligation to protect Americans from such terror."
"The hate crimes bill will help bring justice to those who intentionally choose their victims based on race, color, religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity or disability," Reid continued. "Hate crimes are rampant and their numbers are rising. The Department of Justice estimates that hundreds happen every day."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who took the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, is reportedly considering attaching an 18-month moratorium on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" to the upcoming Defense Department appropriations bill.
Contacted by SGN, her office said, "She is investigating the possibility. She's looking to see if she has the votes." Sen. Reid has stated he would support such a move if Sen. Gillibrand initiates it.
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