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Hate Crimes On Track For Fall


Democratic sources on the Hill say the Department of Defense reauthorization legislation -- to which an amendment is currently attached that would include LGBT citizens under federal hate-crimes protections -- could reach the president's desk as early as mid October.

The House and Senate versions of the DOD bill still need to be reconciled and the Human Rights Campaign sent a letter this week to the respective chairs of the Armed Services committees -- Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri -- urging them to retain the hate-crimes provision in the final version of the bill.

HRC's legislative director, Allison Herwitt, said the hate-crimes amendment is still intact and continues to have the backing of the Democratic leadership on the Hill and in the White House. "Nothing has changed," she said, "there's still a hate-crimes provision in the bill and it has been communicated that this is a priority for the administration and the leadership both in the House and in the Senate."

But HRC is still lobbying to strike some potentially harmful amendments made on the Senate floor by senators who are generally hostile to the bill.

"When the Senate was considering the measure, some members of the Senate who were opposed to the hate-crimes provision in general offered amendments seeking to act like poison pills," explained Herwitt.

One amendment came from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who successfully attached a death penalty provision as one of the options for punishment of a hate crime. The strategic goal of the amendment was to conflict progressives, who would generally simultaneously support the hate-crimes measure but oppose the death penalty.

Sen. Edward Kennedy did offer a second-degree amendment to the Sessions provision that weakened the death penalty language.

"But the civil rights coalition that had been working so hard on getting this bill over the finish line supports the removal of the death penalty language," Herwitt said.

As she wrote in the letter to conferees: "The death penalty will make enforcement of this provision much more complicated and much more costly, diverting scarce resources that could better be used to deter and prevent these crimes in the first place. Additionally, the death penalty is irreversible and highly controversial -- with significant doubts about its deterrent effect and clear evidence of disproportionate application against poor people."

HRC would also like to strike another Sessions amendment, which instructs Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to issue guidelines with "neutral and objective criteria for determining whether a crime was motivated by the status of the victim."

While the language sounds harmless, Herwitt wrote, the amendment "threatens to inject politics into the Justice Department decision-making process in these cases. Members should be especially concerned that this additional attorney general guidance could vary from administration to administration, resulting in uncertainty and, possibly, an unequal application of this important law."

Finally, the letter takes aim at an amendment from Kansas senator Sam Brownback that added further freedom of speech protections.

Herwitt calls the provision "redundant and unnecessary."

"The Matthew Shepard Act is a carefully crafted measure designed to safeguard constitutional rights," she wrote. "The language of the act was developed in close consultation with the Department of Justice and contains explicit provisions clarifying that First Amendment rights are protected."

Herwitt added that she is concerned that the provision is confusing and may have unintended consequences.

Herwitt expects the main players in the final development of the bill to be Senator Levin and Representative Skelton, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and key members of the Judiciary committees: representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

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