Senate passes AAPI bill with wide bipartisan support

Two parties reach agreement on amendment debate

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks during a news conference after the Senate Democrat Policy luncheon on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks during a news conference after the Senate Democrat Policy luncheon on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 22, 2021 at 8:54am, Updated at 2:18pm

The Senate passed an expanded version of a bill to address a rise in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Thursday afternoon, remarkably quick action from a chamber more used to partisan gridlock.

Democrats and Republicans agreed to hold a short series of floor votes on amendments to the main bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, that originally focused on hate crimes against Asian Americans because of COVID-19.

The Democratic-led Senate voted to reject three Republican amendments, and got unanimous consent for a main amendment to broaden the bill. Among other changes, it requires the Justice Department make one DOJ employee’s sole responsibility for the next year to track all hate crimes, not just those against Asians.

And the amendment added language from a bill from Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran to create grants for state and local governments to combat hate crimes.

The Senate then voted 94-1 to pass the amended bill. Hirono on the floor before the vote called it a “strong stand” and said passage “sends a clear and unmistakable message of solidarity to the AAPI community.” Missouri Republican Josh Hawley was the only senator to vote against the bill.

The vote sends the legislation to the House, where the Judiciary Committee paused work on its bills on AAPI hate crimes earlier this week as the Senate worked toward the possibility of such a floor debate.

Democrats cited the urgency of the need for action in skipping the typical committee process and putting the bill on the floor. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer touted the cooperation on the measure before the vote Thursday, citing the bipartisan proposals packaged into the underlying bill.

"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," the New York Democrat said.

Schumer also told his colleagues about conversations with fellow Asian American New Yorkers about the fear of attack that has permeated their daily lives, and experiences of being spat on, glared at "and worse."

"This is not an occasional occurrence, it's occurring every day in just about every corner of America," Schumer said.

Schumer emphasized that the bill will send the message that federal law enforcement will utilize its full power to detect and prosecute hate crimes.

"This bill has a one-two punch to assure the Asian American community we're going after the bigotry against them, and to tell the American people, particularly those bigots, we're going after you -- in a legal way of course," he said.

Amendment debate

One of the trio of rejected Republican amendments that needed 60 votes to pass, from Utah Sen. Mike Lee, would have required the Justice Department to report to Congress about the restrictions on religious exercise imposed by states during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrats opposed it because it struck other provisions from the bill, and the Senate rejected it 49-48.

An amendment from Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, would have prevented any federal funding for colleges and universities that engage “in a practice that discriminates against Asian Americans in recruitment, applicant review, or admissions.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas was added as a cosponsor of the amendment.

Hirono called it a transparent and cynical attack on longstanding policies that promote diversity, and threatened universities for using policies that courts have upheld. The Senate rejected it 49-48.

And an amendment from Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, among other things, would require the reporting only of hate crimes and not hate crime incidents. Blumenthal said the amendment would harm a full count of incidents that show the scope of the problem, and also cut out key provisions, such as grants for state-run hotlines about hate crimes. The Senate voted to reject it 46-51.

The main amendment, which Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins backed, would make other small changes to Hirono’s bill. It would remove language that would have defined a “COVID-19 hate crime,” along with a provision that would require the Justice Department and other agencies to issue guidance about how to mitigate the use of racially discriminatory language to describe the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, the amendment would have the Justice Department issue guidance “aimed at raising awareness of hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The amendment would change the original Blumenthal-Moran bill, which would have required the attorney general to give preference for grants to states and local governments with larger populations, to a preference for states and local governments “that develop and implement” programs to prevent or address hate crimes, particularly reporting hate crimes.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.