Saying "the last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation," Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee blocked proposals to establish the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women's History Museum on Thursday.
Supporters of the bipartisan bill that would have added a Latino museum to the existing Smithsonian Institution museum collection had hoped to get approval of the museum's establishment — a goal for at least 25 years — on a voice vote.
But as is allowed under Senate rules, Lee blocked the bills for the museums.
On the Latino museum, Lee argued that the stories of Latinos should be told in a single museum, the American History Museum. He also said museums for African Americans and Native Americans were built because those groups were subjected to systemic racism and their stories in history were erased.
Lee referred to the proposed museums as "an array of segregated separate, but equal museums for hyphenated identity groups."
Estuardo Rodriguez, president and CEO of Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, told NBC News that Lee’s statement on the floor, "was a sad commentary based on fears around the diversity of our nation. He fails to understand that by highlighting the diversity that has helped build our nation, we are able to better understand each other and come together."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a co-sponsor of the bipartisan legislation with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, had argued that the Smithsonian itself had acknowledged in a 1994 report titled "Willful Neglect" that it had done a poor job of including Latinos and their history in its museums, as well as on Smithsonian staff and positions of power in the museum administration.
"We Latinos are not invaders," Menendez said. "We have been here from the beginning."
Speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, Menendez said the Latino museum has wide support and pointed out that one colleague "stands in the way of the dreams and aspirations of seeing Americans of Latino descent having their dreams fully recognized."
Menendez seemed to take umbrage with Lee's remarks suggesting Latinos had not suffered systemic racism.
"We have been systemically excluded. We, who founded the oldest city in America before there was a United States of America. We, who were ultimately used as farmworkers and discriminated against in the Bracero program. We, who were discriminated against when we voluntarily joined the Armed Forces of the United States to defend the nation," Menendez said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined Menendez in criticizing Lee's objections to the Latino museum and his objection to the women's museum.
"This is a sad moment," Collins said.
The bill would start the process for establishing the museums, giving the go ahead to the Smithsonian to do feasibility studies and consider locations. The museums would be paid for with a split of public and private money, but any decisions on locations and spending would be subjected to further review by Congress.
The vote would have been on the bill that the House approved in July with one amendment. If it had passed the Senate it would have gone back to the House for its final signoff and then to the president to sign.
"We are confident that we can still move this bill forward and will work with members of the House and Senate, from both sides of the aisle," said Rodriguez, "to make the American Latino Museum a reality."