By Makini Brice and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate will take up hate crime legislation on Wednesday intended to combat violence against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a potential first major test this Congress of the Senate procedural tool known as the filibuster.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, led by Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono and Congresswoman Grace Meng, also raises the question as to whether the two parties that evenly divide the Senate can agree on any legislative initiative in a time of intense partisanship.
The bill, which comes after a spate of high-profile attacks on Asian Americans, designates a Justice Department employee to expedite a review of hate crimes reported to police during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also provide guidance for state and local law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes, expand public education campaigns and issue guidance to combat discriminatory language in describing the pandemic.
Reports of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans have surged during the pandemic, after former President Donald Trump started calling the coronavirus the “China virus.”
Senators on Wednesday will take a procedural vote on whether to debate on the overall bill. Under the chamber’s filibuster rule, at least 60 senators must consent to take that step – which would require bipartisan support since the chamber is divided 50-50.
The filibuster stands as the major stumbling block to Democrats’ agenda in the Senate, which they control by the narrowest of margins.
“What can be controversial about a voluntary reporting by the states of these kinds of crimes?” Hirono said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Several Republican senators told reporters that they expected the bill to move past the initial step. But Senate Republicans want an arrangement that would allow them to offer amendments, according to a Republican aide.
One possible bipartisan amendment could be the addition of the “No Hate Act,” which was introduced by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal in 2017. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he was open to considering.
The amendment, led by Blumenthal and Republican Senator Jerry Moran, would train law enforcement agencies on how to use hate crime reporting systems and conduct hate crime investigations, and it would expand resources for victims of such crimes, among other measures.
“It’s my intention to make the first amendment a bipartisan one, but I can’t do that unless our Republican colleagues allow us to debate the bill,” Schumer told reporters.
Progressives have been pushing to eliminate the filibuster, arguing that, because of lack of agreement from Republicans, the Senate will be unable to pass legislation on a number of priorities for Democrats, including on voting rights, immigration and gun control.
But such a move has yet to gain support from all Democratic senators or President Joe Biden.
(Reporting by Makini Brice and David Morgan; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)
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