Senate faces a new post-tragedy quagmire as anti-Asian hate crimes rise

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Senate Democrats are vowing quick action to stem the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. But their modest legislative effort is headed toward the same political paralysis that’s plagued Congress after past national tragedies.

As the nation reels from an Atlanta shooting that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, President Joe Biden has thrown his weight behind two bills aimed at improving hate crimes reporting. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday one of the bills would be a top priority next month. So far, however, not a single Republican has endorsed it.

Unlike immigration or voting rights, hate crime is an issue with few obvious political pitfalls — and the discriminatory violence against Asian Americans that’s increased during the coronavirus pandemic has raised its national profile. Yet Congress is still confronting a dynamic that recalls its long-running inability to respond to rising gun violence: While lawmakers in both parties are quick to condemn wrongdoing after mass shootings and other tragic events, enacting a law that addresses them is once again proving elusive.

“It all fits in that same swirl of the things that the American people want us to do. But Congress continues to fail because of the filibuster,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The hate crimes measure Schumer plans to force a vote on would make a small-scale but potentially meaningful change by creating a Justice Department point person to focus on the problem. Even so, Republicans expressed skepticism about the need for additional legislation while saying they had yet to review the Democrats’ bill.

“We’ve already got a hate crimes bill,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Just go after people who hurt folks because of their race. Pound them. We’ve already got the law.”

When the Senate returns from its two-week recess, it’s set to vote on Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono’s proposal for a DOJ official to help expedite the review of Covid-related hate crimes. The bill also would beef up state and local guidance on hate crime reporting while asking federal agencies to provide a general framework for avoiding racially discriminatory language when describing the Covid-19 pandemic.

A second bill that could see action in the Senate, with Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal as its lead sponsor, would establish grants to help state and local governments improve hate crime reporting. That measure passed the House twice in the last Congress only to sit idle across the Capitol for lack of GOP backing.

Also in the House, Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.), one of two Asian-American Republicans currently in Congress, used a Friday op-ed to outline plans for a nonbinding bipartisan resolution condemning hate crimes. Kim wrote that she was talking with her colleagues about hate crimes recording but that “we cannot legislate hate out of people’s hearts and minds.” The House passed a similar nonbinding measure condemning anti-Asian sentiment last year.

Hirono acknowledged this week that no Republicans have signed on to her bill. But she and other Democrats insisted they would not accept long-term defeat on either hate crimes or gun control legislation.

“I have not concluded that gun reform and in fact any of these really important bills that we should be bringing to the floor will die. Because that means, even with our majority, we can’t get things done,” said Hirono, who is open to nixing the legislative filibuster that has hamstrung a significant number of progressive priorities.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the chair of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, said she’s confident in Congress’ ability to pass hate crimes legislation that has two House Republicans as lead sponsors this year. She pointed to one key difference between hate crime and gun bills: the presence of groups like the NRA stymieing progress on the latter, but not the former.

“I don’t think we have that kind of lobby” against fighting hate crime, Chu said. She is part of a group of House lawmakers traveling to Atlanta on Sunday to visit the site of each shooting and to meet with local Asian American leaders.

Others, however, acknowledged that even anti-bias legislation now falls prey to partisan gridlock.

“It’s sad that it looks like we’re not gonna get any Republican votes,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). “I would think that we could all stand united against hate against any segment of Americans.”

The urgency of the moment is clear to many advocates against discrimination. Over the past year, anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide have jumped from roughly 100 annually to nearly 3,800 reports, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. Democrats attribute that uptick in part to former President Donald Trump’s characterization of the coronavirus as the “China virus.”

Senate Republicans aren’t backing the hate crimes legislation. But their leader has stepped forward to condemn the tide of Covid-era discrimination. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who is married to Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American woman to be a Cabinet secretary — described the Atlanta shooting as “absolutely horrendous.” He added that racial prejudice against Asian-Americans “certainly rose to the fore for everyone else when we saw these shootings” but criticized the House’s “perplexing” plan to respond by expanding background checks for gun buyers.

Blumenthal, who has long worked on gun reform, said that the Atlanta shooting illustrated how hate crimes and gun violence are inevitably intertwined.

“The two are linked,” he said. “Without a weapon the Atlanta shooter would have been a racist and a misogynist. But armed with a firearm he became a mass murderer.”

But even in times of collective trauma, the Senate is not equipped as an institution to respond quickly. Following 2019 shootings in Ohio and Texas, lawmakers again tried to start gun reform talks that went nowhere. (The gunman in Texas was ultimately charged with hate crimes.) And following this month’s latest mass shootings, Congress remains without a path to agreement on even modest gun legislation.

“It has a lot to do with the rules of the Senate,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). “It just takes longer and it’s too bad. It would be good if we could be more responsive in the moment to what is happening in the lives of Americans and be more clear about the messages that we want to send — especially around issues on these hate crimes.”

Senators who prize the chamber’s ability to take its time, however, don’t want to become a quick-reaction force after tragedies.

“That period of reflection oftentimes brings balance. “ said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Not doing something is a decision. And Congress was never intended to solve every problem, local and individual or otherwise. Quite the contrary.”

Advocates aren’t taking congressional stalemate for an answer. Gregg Orton, the national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said Congress’ failure to act would “continue the trend that our community is not taken seriously by decision makers.” John Yang, the president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice put it more bluntly: “It would be a slap in the face to the community.”

The House’s recent hearing on anti-Asian hate, its first in over 30 years, descended at times into acrimony as Republican lawmakers warned hate crime legislation could infringe on free speech protections.

“Who’s deciding when we get into making crimes out of thought, crimes out of speech as opposed to crimes out of the actions of evildoers?” asked Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas).

Even if Congress fails to pass Hirono’s bill, the Biden administration could enact its provisions unilaterally. But she still wants lawmakers to go beyond mere rhetoric as discriminatory episodes increase.

“It’s really important,” Hirono said, “for the legislative branch to say, ‘This is not acceptable. And this is what we ought to do about it.’“

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