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Senate Democrats use Asian American hate crimes bill as key test of Republican obstruction

The legislation is narrow in scope — but could send a powerful message condemning anti-Asian racism.

A group of protesters hold signs, one reading “Stop Asian Hate,” and wave American flags, a city skyline in the background.
People participate in a protest to demand an end to anti-Asian violence on April 4 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Democrats this week are putting forth a key test on the limits of Republican obstruction: A bill aimed at combating anti-Asian hate crimes.

The legislation, which is relatively narrow in scope, would designate a Justice Department official to review Covid-19 related hate crimes, and calls on the agency to provide reporting guidance for regional law enforcement bodies.

It’s a pretty limited bill, meant to signal the federal government’s commitment to protecting Asian Americans, who have faced increased racist violence over the past year. But a vote on it could also have broader effects: If Republicans block it, that would provide more fodder to Democrats looking to build a case for eliminating the filibuster, and suggest the GOP is unwilling to condemn anti-Asian racism outright.

Conversely, the bill could also offer a rare opening for bipartisanship: In fact, the No Hate Act, an even stronger piece of legislation aimed at improving hate crimes reporting, has both Democratic and Republican support, and could get added as an amendment.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), a chief sponsor of the legislation, spoke about the impact the hate incidents in the last year have had on her during a press conference. “As an [Asian American and Pacific Islander] person, it does give me pause,” she said. “Before, when I was walking around outside, I would have my earbuds on and I’d be listening to books on tape. I would never do that now.”

The bill on Wednesday cleared an important procedural hurdle: Lawmakers voted 92-6 to open debate on it, which means that they’ll now consider possible amendments. The dynamic to watch will be just how much bipartisan support these amendments end up getting, and whether they deter members of either party from backing the final legislation.

Depending on how things shake out, this could be a unique opportunity for bipartisanship — while also serving as a chance for the Senate to send a resounding message denouncing anti-Asian hate.

The Senate’s hate crimes bill and a possible bipartisan amendment, briefly explained

The Senate’s hate crimes bill is quite modest: By allocating someone to the Justice Department who specifically focuses on Covid-19-related hate crimes, it would bolster the agency’s focus on tracking and prosecuting such incidents, which is important, but not exactly a sweeping change.

The bill also pushes for better guidance from the DOJ for city and state law enforcement when it comes to online hate crimes reporting, and public education campaigns that help potential victims connect to resources. Additionally, the legislation urges Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to ensure that discriminatory language, like “China virus,” isn’t used to address the pandemic.

Despite its limited approach, the bill could help raise the profile of this issue. “One of the greatest barriers to effective handling of hate crimes is resources,” says Brendan Lantz, director of the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University. “If this additional review translates to additional resources and guidance, it has the potential to make a difference.”

In prioritizing this legislation, Democrats are also making an important point about the need to unequivocally call out anti-Asian hate, as incidents targeting Asian Americans have surged in the past year following the Trump administration’s decision to use racist language to describe the coronavirus and its origins. The organization Stop AAPI Hate has received nearly 3,800 reports of such incidents, though it’s important to note that some of them likely wouldn’t meet current federal standards to be classified as hate crimes.

In the last few months, shootings in Georgia, which killed six women of Asian descent, as well as videos capturing brutal attacks on Asian American elders, have renewed focus on this issue as well.

“There has never been a situation in my lifetime when I have felt this level of fear, of vulnerability, than I do right now,” Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) recently said.

Now that the Senate has voted successfully to proceed to the bill, one of the amendments that has bipartisan support is the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already backed the measure, according to an aide, and some Republicans have indicated a willingness to support it as well, because they feel hate crime reporting is currently unsatisfactory. Many studies have found that thousands of hate crimes likely go unreported each year for a number of reasons, including lack of trust in law enforcement.

The No Hate Act would make reporting options more robust by including grant money for local and state law enforcement agencies to set up hotlines for hate crimes, and provide better training around hate crime tracking. It would also push for offenders who are convicted to serve out community service and educational courses related to the community affected.

“The No Hate Act would improve reporting on hate crimes and promote a better, community-centered response to such incidences,” says Becky Monroe, the senior director of the Fighting Hate and Bias program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Both the bill as currently written and the No Hate Act are unlikely to fully address the root causes of hate crimes, though they could provide a more complete picture of how many people are being affected, helping to better combat them.

“Education, public messaging — particularly from elected officials — and other community-based programs aimed at reconciliation and repair are more likely to reduce the incidents of hate crimes,” says Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke. Incremental changes, meanwhile, could help provide context for the scale of the problem.

Republicans have a choice to make

This vote is the first in a series that Senate Democrats have planned for this spring, and could reveal how much Republicans intend to obstruct notable Democratic priorities. Other upcoming votes on the docket include one on the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, HR 1, and additional ones on gun control and immigration reform.

Whether Republicans reject the hate crimes legislation could be a sign of just how intent they are on blocking Democratic measures regardless of the issue: Some Republicans have suggested this bill could be a federal overreach that puts pressure on states to comply with reporting requirements.

“I’d love to see a bipartisan result here. But in some ways it goes too far, in our view,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) previously told Politico.

Others, meanwhile, note that this is a subject area where both parties could actually work together to advance some reforms. “I’m trying to see if we can’t get this resolved and take this up tomorrow,” Moran told the Washington Post’s Paul Kane on Tuesday.

Democrats are watching this vote keenly, as the debate over the filibuster continues: Because of this procedural relic, if lawmakers from the minority party opt to block a bill, it will need 60 votes to pass — a near-impossible threshold for Democrats to meet on priorities like the $15 minimum wage, in a 50-50 Senate.

This bill — depending on how it’s treated — could offer more ammunition for Democrats who have been arguing for doing away with the filibuster, or, interestingly, provide a chance for Republicans and Democrats to actually agree on a piece of legislation.