In bipartisan vote, Senate advances bill on hate crimes against Asian Americans

Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY
·4 min read

WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Wednesday with overwhelming bipartisan support to open debate on an anti-Asian American hate crimes bill, signaling Republicans' willingness to compromise on the legislation, which aims to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans and strengthen hate crime reporting.

Senators voted 92-6 to proceed to debate on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, legislation that would expedite the Justice Department's review of hate crimes as the Asian American community has seen an increase in incidents during the coronavirus pandemic. It also would task the department with coordinating with local law enforcement groups and community-based organizations to facilitate and raise awareness about hate-crime reporting.

Republican lawmakers seemed to back the potential to filibuster the bill on Tuesday after Democrats urged their colleagues across the aisle to get on board and signaled they were open to bipartisan amendments addressing concerns the GOP might have.

The bill's path forward depends on the evenly split Senate's ability to negotiate on amendments. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who introduced the bill, said Wednesday that about 20 amendments have been filed so far, with some from Republicans that "have absolutely nothing to do with the bill."

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally to show solidarity with Asian Americans at Embarcadero Plaza on March 26, 2021, in San Francisco.
Demonstrators hold signs during a rally to show solidarity with Asian Americans at Embarcadero Plaza on March 26, 2021, in San Francisco.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had indicated concern that the bill's focus on COVID-related hate crimes was too narrow, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday could be addressed.

"The whole point is that there is a connection between COVID and the rise of these hate crimes. We wanted to make sure that everyone understood there's a cause and effect here, but I'm open to eliminating that so that we can get to the real issue, which is the rise in hate crimes against AAPIs and what can we do about it," Hirono said Tuesday.

Hirono said on Wednesday she is working with Collins on the language of the bill.

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Schumer said there was bipartisan interest in moving forward with an amendment filed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that could be added to the legislation. The Blumenthal-Moran No Hate Act would encourage more training on hate crimes for law enforcement, establish hate crime hotlines and allow for a "rehabilitation" effort for perpetrators of hate crimes. Hirono said she "wholeheartedly" supports the amendment.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she didn't see an issue in proceeding with the bill on Tuesday.

"I don’t believe we should be allowing these types of hate crimes out there, whether it's women or Asian Americans, so we're going to take a look at the text," Ernst told reporters, adding that she is reading through the bill and will put forth any amendments she wants to support.

But other Republicans said they were unhappy that Democrats had advanced the bill directly to the Senate floor without going through committee first. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called for a Committee or the Crime Subcommittee hearing to consider the issue of hate crimes against Asian Americans first.

"We believe the Senate should have the benefit of hearing from the Department of Justice before blindly acting on this issue," they said, arguing that such action should wait for a completed 30-day DOJ review of the uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans amid the pandemic.

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After a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, last month in Georgia, Congress held its first hearing on anti-Asian violence and discrimination in decades. Some Republicans questioned whether a focus on hate crimes could come at a detriment to free speech.

Democrats needed at least 10 Republicans to get on board to receive the 60 votes needed to move the bill to debate in the Senate and for the chamber to proceed with any bipartisan amendments. President Joe Biden has also urged Congress to take action on discrimination and hate crimes against Asian Americans.

The bill "should be totally noncontroversial," Hirono said on Tuesday, urging Republicans to work with Democrats on the issue.

The White House on Wednesday announced Erika Moritsugu, currently the vice president at National Partnership for Women & Families, as the administration's Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) senior liaison. The position was created amid criticism from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Hirono over the lack of Asian American or Pacific Islander representation in Biden’s Cabinet.

Contributing: Courtney Subramanian

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hate crime bill: Senate advances bill on anti-Asian hate crimes