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Washington, D.C.--The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community’s national legislative agenda unraveled farther on December 6 when a bill against hate crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was stripped from a large defense spending bill during a conference between House and Senate lawmakers.
The Matthew Shepard Act passed the Senate on October 1 as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill through a procedural vote of 6039.
A nearly identical bill called the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed the House 237-180 on May 3.
However, once in conference, which is controlled by majority Democrats, word came up that there might not be enough votes in the House to pass the final version of the defense bill. It was opposed by anti-war Democrats as well as Republicans against the hate crime provision.
Passage of a hate crime bill was a top legislative priority of the Human Rights Campaign, the large LGBT lobbying group. In the states, hate crime laws have often preceded ones barring employment and housing discrimination by sexual orientation.
Rejection of the hate crime measure in conference was a huge blow to HRC. It follows a loudly protested decision to remove gender identity from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that passed the House last month.
Both incidents call into question the ability of the Democratic majority in both houses to deliver on promises made to HRC and to LGBT activists that supported them.
The hate crime legislation fell into peril when House Democrats discovered they did not have the votes to keep the provision in. It was removed to pass the measure, which authorizes money for the Iraq war, gives servicemembers a pay raise, and increases resources for health services to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“Congress must pass this bill before we adjourn,” said Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina in a written statement.
Clyburn supports the hate crime provision, and called for a stand-alone hate crime bill to be passed by the Senate in the future.
The Senate sponsors, Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon, reasoned that the hate crime package, which President George W. Bush promised to veto, would have a better chance of becoming law if it was attached to a “must pass” bill. They chose the authorization to fund the wars. HRC supported that strategy.
Versions of the hate crime bill have been in Congress since 1996 when the Justice Department led by Attorney General Janet Reno pushed for its passage. The original Senate sponsors were Kennedy and Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. Until this year, it had never passed either chamber.
In the House, which passed it as a freestanding bill, margins were much closer and opposition was more organized.
During the House vote last spring, Ohio’s Deborah Pryce of Columbus was the only Republican to support the measure.
Opponents mounted a disinformation campaign against the bill, claiming, among other things, that ministers who spoke out against homosexuality could be prosecuted if it passed.
Last week, having the measure attached to war money cut into Democratic support.
Anti-war Democrats, who are typically the most fervent supporters of LGBT equality, could not support the war provisions in the bill and would vote it against it.
Pro-war Democrats wanted to avoid a fight with Bush over the hate crime provision, thus delaying funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan efforts.
So, for now, the possibility of federalizing hate crime against LGBT people is dead.
“I am deeply frustrated and disappointed with this Congress,” said Smith. “The unwillingness of a few to compromise is keeping Matthew’s bill from becoming law. The fight doesn’t stop now.”
“After more than ten years and several successful bipartisan votes, it is heartbreaking to fall short this close to the finish line,” said HRC president Joe Solmonese. “However, we are not giving up efforts to find another legislative vehicle in the second half of this Congress.”