WASHINGTON — The Democratic-led Senate on Thursday voted to let federal law enforcement help states prosecute attacks on gays, attaching the provision to a massive spending bill for the Iraq war and daring President Bush to veto the whole package.
The White House wasn't commenting on the prospects for a veto of the underlying defense authorization bill. But some Republicans warned that's just what would happen after the Senate voted by voice to accept the hate crimes amendment.
"The president is not going to agree to this social legislation on the defense authorization bill," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "This bill will get vetoed."
Still, the hate crimes provision attracted significant support from the president's party. Nine Republicans were among the 60 senators who voted to halt any filibusters and bring the matter to the final voice vote.
The White House stopped short of reiterating Bush's veto threat, issued earlier this year when the House passed the same hate crimes provision as a stand-alone bill. But presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino made clear that Bush believes the federal provision is unnecessary.
"State and local law enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent they can," Perino said. She wouldn't comment on the prospects for a veto.
The provision has progressed to this point before. In the Republican-controlled Congress, the Senate in 2004 attached a similar measure to the same authorization bill, but it was stripped out during negotiations with the House.
This time, majority Democrats first passed the provision in the House. So the prospect of being stripped out during negotiations is less likely, leaving open the question of a presidential veto.
The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay college freshman who died after he was beaten into a coma in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo.
Under current federal law, hate crimes apply to acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color or national origin. Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction only if the victim is engaged in a specific federally protected activity such as voting.
The bill would extend the hate crimes category to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability and give federal authorities greater leeway to participate in hate crime investigations. It would approve $10 million over the next two years to help local law enforcement officials cover the cost of hate crime prosecutions. Federal investigators could step in if local authorities were unwilling or unable to act.
Democrats and the provision's Republican supporters said the bill would create a safeguard in states that do not have laws against hate crimes committed based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And they insisted that the provision is relevant to the underlying military spending legislation because both are strikes against terrorist behavior.
"The defense authorization is about dealing with the challenges of terrorism overseas...This (bill) is about terrorism in our neighborhood," said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chief Democratic sponsor. "We want to fight terrorism here at home with all of our weapons."
That's a stretch, not to mention a heavy-handed maneuver that "hijacks" a bill that includes a pay increase for troops in wartime, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"I think it's shameful we're changing the subject to take care of special interest legislation at a time like this," Cornyn said on the Senate floor.
During a test tally that preceded the final vote, nine Republicans were among the 60 senators who voted to support the amendment: GOP co-sponsor Gordon Smith of Oregon, Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Warner of Virginia and George Voinovich of Ohio.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not vote.
Republicans were careful not to attack the intent of the legislation, focusing instead on what they said was the "non-germane" nature of the amendment to the overall spending bill.
"There may be a time and place for a hate crimes discussion, but it is certainly not now when national security legislation is being held up," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Retorted Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.: "For some, it never seems to be the right time or the right place."