WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted to crack down on hate crimes on Thursday in defiance of a possible White House veto. In doing so, it declared that the United States must combat terror at home as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“At a time that we are fighting terrorism abroad, the United States Senate says, ‘We are going to fight terrorism, hatred and bigotry here at home,'” said Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The measure would bolster the ability of federal, state and local authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on race, ethnic background, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
The White House has threatened to veto such legislation, and, along with many fellow Republicans in Congress, contends it is unneeded and existing laws are adequate.
The White House also opposed the Senate’s cranking up pressure to approve the measure by attaching it to a defense bill authorizing Pentagon programs.
White House press secretary Dana Perino voiced displeasure with the hate-crime amendment, but declined to say if President George W. Bush would veto the entire massive defense bill.
“Our position on the hate crimes legislation has been very consistent. We believe that all violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously and that all people should be protected from violent crimes,” Perino told reporters.
“State and local districts have their own laws. A lot of them are stricter and stronger than ones in the federal hate crimes legislation proposal,” Perino said.
In attaching the hate-crimes provision, the Senate deleted other language -- granting more rights to detainees held at Guantanamo -- that had drawn a White House veto threat.
The hate-crime amendment was approved in the 100-member Democratic-led Senate on a voice vote after it barely cleared a Republican roadblock. Backers mustered 60 votes, the minimum needed to move toward passage.
Backers note that the FBI reports more than 9,000 hate crimes a year and that the Senate-passed measure had been backed by more than 200 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organizations.
“We cannot fight terror abroad and accept terror at home,” said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who co-sponsored the measure with Kennedy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, warned that the amendment ”puts the (defense) bill in jeopardy.
The Senate approved similar hate-crime legislation a number of times the past decade. But it was repeatedly stopped by the then Republican-led House of Representatives, which is now in Democratic hands.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Bush should sign the legislation into law.
“There has never been a veto of the defense authorization bill,” Reid said.
If Bush did veto, a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate and House would be needed to override him.
The initial federal hate crime law was passed in 1968 after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It authorized federal authorities to investigate crimes based on race, religion and national origin.
The Senate-passed measure would add hate crimes based on sexual orientation and disability. It would also authorize $10 million over the next two years to help combat hate crimes.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell