WASHINGTON — A Senate impasse over a widely backed bill to designate lynching as a federal hate crime boiled over on Thursday in an emotional debate cast against a backdrop of widespread protests over police treatment of African Americans.
Raw feelings were evident as Sen. Rand Paul — who is single-handedly holding up the bill despite letting it pass last year — sought changes to the legislation as a condition of allowing it to pass.
But the Senate’s two black Democrats, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, protested, saying the measure should pass as is. The debate occurred as a memorial service was taking place for George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, sparking the protests that have convulsed the nation.
The legislative effort to make lynching a federal hate crime punishable by up to life in prison comes 65 years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, and follows dozens of failed attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation.
The Senate unanimously passed virtually identical legislation last year. The House then passed it by a sweeping 410-4 vote in February but renamed the legislation for Till — the sole change that returned the measure to the Senate.
“Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity, and it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it,” said Harris.
Paul, who has a history of rankling colleagues by slowing down bills, said the legislation was drafted too broadly and could define minor assaults as lynching. He also noted that murdering someone because of their race is already a hate crime. He said the Senate should make other reforms, such as easing “qualified immunity” rules that shield police officers from being sued.
“Rather than consider a good-intentioned but symbolic bill, the Senate could immediately consider addressing qualified immunity and ending police militarization,” Paul said. He sought to offer an amendment to weaken the measure, and Booker blocked it.
The conflict had been kept relatively quiet as Booker and Paul sought an agreement, but media reports recently pegged Paul as the reason the measure is stalled.
“Tell me another time when 500-plus Congress people, Democrats, Republicans, House members and senators come together in a chorus of conviction and say, ‘Now is the time in America that we condemn the dark history of our past and actually pass anti-lynching legislation,’” Booker said.