Senate expands hate crimes law

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted last week to expand the federal hate crimes law to include attacks against people based on their gender or sexual orientation.

Senators voted 63-28 to add the legislation as an amendment to a defense authorization bill. The House passed a similar hate crimes bill this spring, and President Barack Obama has indicated he would sign it into law.

The amendment was described as the most extensive change in the law since Congress first passed it in 1968.

The original defined hate crimes as those committed on the basis of race, color, religion or nationality.

The update would add gender, disability, and sexual orientation. It also would give the Justice Department more authority to investigate and prosecute hate crimes at the request of states, and would offer grants for state and local governments to prevent such crimes.

“This amendment would put into law what we already know, that crimes are different when they are motivated by discrimination,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted the Senate passed similar bills four times previously.

Foes questioned whether more federal involvement was necessary, since 45 states have hate crimes laws on the books, and there is no evidence states are neglecting those prosecutions.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged the Senate not to pass the bill, and “like the Commission, I believe that hate crimes legislation poses significant constitutional problems and risks undermining important principles of federalism.”

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted to expand the hate crimes law. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted against expanding the law.

WILD HORSE PROTECTIONS PASS

The House voted 239-185 to revamp federal management of wild horses, with the aim to maintain healthy herds by expanding the ranges on which they roam.

The bill would ban the slaughter of wild horses and burros and improve ways to estimate their numbers. It sets a goal of expanding wild horse ranges by 19 million acres, the amount of land that has been removed since 1971.

Lawmakers reacted to a Bureau of Land Management announcement last year that it might have to kill thousands of animals.

About 36,000 wild horses and burros roam on 33 million acres in 10 Western states while the BLM has struggled to balance the population against the ability of the range to provide forage.

“The status quo is a national disgrace,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the bill sponsor.

Opponents argued the bill amounted to “welfare for horses,” as the Congressional Budget Office estimated it could cost $200 million over five years.

They said Congress should let the BLM manage the herds without interference.

“We have more concern with the habitat for horses than homes for humans,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., voted for the wild horse bill. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.

OBAMA ADVISERS DEFENDED

Democrats cast what some tried to portray as a vote of confidence in President Barack Obama’s economic team by defeating a Republican amendment to kill funding for the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said the council has served as a “cheerleader” for Obama’s policies that he said have failed to save jobs and revive the economy.

Price said his amendment was “a vote of ‘no confidence’ on this administration’s economic policies. They don’t have a plan to get America back to work.”

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said Republicans are eager to blame Obama for the economy when in fact “this president is trying to clean up the mess that was created during the last eight years” by President George W. Bush.

Serrano said the council “brings solid, scientific evidence” into debates on economic recovery, health care, job training and climate change. “This is not the time to do away with it,” he said.

Price’s amendment was killed, 146-279. Heller voted for it. Berkley and Titus voted against it.

BALLOT GRANTS DEFENDED

The House defeated an amendment seeking to halve next year’s grants for states to upgrade their voting systems.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., said only 20 percent of the grants for 2008 were awarded, and only 4 percent so far for 2009.

“So we have almost $186 million still sitting in the Treasury for these grants,” Emerson said. “I see little need to provide another $100 million in unused funds.”

Emerson proposed to cut the $100 million in fiscal year 2010 grants to $50 million.

Speaking against the amendment, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said it was important that states and local governments “receive all the funding that is coming to them.”

“If there is anything we should not shortchange, it is our ability to conduct the most exemplary elections in the world,” Holt said. “And we have not reached that standard yet.”

The Emerson amendment was killed, 172-250. Heller voted for it. Berkley and Titus voted against it.

Contact Stephens Media Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephens media.com or 202-783-1760.

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