WASHINGTON — The Senate opened debate Wednesday on legislation confronting the rise of potential hate crimes against Asian Americans, a growing problem during the coronavirus crisis that will also test whether the chamber can push past partisanship on an issue important to many constituents.
Typically, the Democratic-sponsored COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act might quickly face a filibuster, opposed by Republicans who prefer a different approach. But under the Senate leaders' agreement struck at the start of the year, Republicans and Democrats pledged to try to at least try to debate bills to see if they could reach agreement through the legislative process.
Senators voted overwhelmingly, 92-6, to proceed Wednesday to consideration of the bill.
Ahead of the vote, several leaders of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in Congress gave personal and heart-wrenching stories of the racism they and their constituents have faced, incidents on the rise during the virus outbreak.
“For more than a year, the Asian American community has been fighting two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-Asian hate,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., a co-author of the bill, said Tuesday at the Capitol.
Meng described well-documented but “horrifying” images of people being shoved and beaten in public attacks, and of her own conversations with survivors, including the families of the victims of deadly shootings last month in Atlanta. Six of those killed were women of Asian descent.
“Combating hate should not be a partisan issue. It’s about the safety of all Americans,” Meng said.
The bill is the most substantive congressional response to what has been an alarming rise in racist sentiment against Asian Americans, fueled in part by derogatory language about the virus’ origins in China. Donald Trump, while president, played into that narrative with derisive nicknames for the virus. The moment harks back to earlier eras of racism against Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and others of Asian heritage in this country.
The White House on Wednesday issued a statement of administrative policy that “strongly supports” the bill's passage. “Elected leaders must act to prevent anti-Asian violence and advance inclusion and belonging for all Asian American communities,” it said.
Senate Republicans have panned the legislation for various shortcomings, but most were reluctant to exercise the filibuster to block it. Opposing it could expose senators to claims they are being racially insensitive.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said as the “proud husband of an Asian American woman, I think this discrimination against Asian Americans is a real problem."
McConnell is married to Elaine Chao, the former transportation secretary, and he said Tuesday he was hoping to work out an agreement with Democrats to at least debate the bill and consider potential amendments.
Final passage, however, remains uncertain.
Any one senator can halt the process, and it takes 60 votes in the Senate, which is evenly split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, to overcome a filibuster. Six Republicans voted Wednesday against proceeding to the bill, including Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, all potential presidential hopefuls.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was open to considering changes to the bill. He is in conversations with McConnell on a package of amendments that could be considered, according to aides.
“We cannot and must not remain silent,” Schumer said Tuesday. “There is no reason, no reason, this shouldn’t be a bipartisan bill that passes the Senate.”
A robust floor debate is rare for the Senate, which has ground to a halt due to pervasive partisanship. The gridlock has intensified calls from Democrats to change the filibuster rules to push past the opposition. Shy of taking that step, Schumer and McConnell had reached a tentative accord earlier this year to try to push past stalemates and allow senators to discuss and amend bills.
Leaving a caucus luncheon Tuesday, several GOP senators said they were still looking at the legislation and proposed amendments to figure out what they would support.
“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," said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. She said she wasn't aware of any “major objections” from Republicans.
Though timely, the legislation is also modest, what supporters see as a first step in a federal response to the rise of Asian American hate crimes. It would assign a point person within the Justice Department to expedite the review of COVID-19-related hate crimes and provide support for local law enforcement to respond to such incidents. The department would also work to limit discriminatory language used to describe the pandemic.
One bipartisan amendment would beef up support to law enforcement, and others are expected.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, the bill’s co-author, told of her own experience. She said she is no longer comfortable taking a walk with her headphones listening to audio books because of the attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
She said she hopes Republicans join in supporting the bill.
“An attack on one group in our country is truly an attack on all of us,” she said.