The House voted 281 to 146 Thursday to pass a Defense Department funding bill that includes a measure extending hate-crimes protections to people targeted on the basis of their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.
The conference report for the Defense bill, which is a melding of the versions passed separately in the House and the Senate, will now move to a vote in the Senate as early as next week.
“The week of the 13th, we expect the Senate will take up the conference report and pass it as well, and then the bill gets pushed over the finish line and sent to the president’s desk for signature,” said Allison Herwitt, legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign.
At Thursday's press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pledged that President Barack Obama would sign the legislation.
Herwitt said the legislation should remain intact exactly as it passed the House. “A conference report cannot be amended, so it's simply an up or down vote in the Senate,” she said. “We are extremely optimistic."
The conference report kept several amendments that were offered by Republicans but dropped the most problematic amendment, which would have included the death penalty as a possible sentence for perpetrating a hate crime.
The two provisions that remained added additional First Amendment protections to the measure and charged the U.S. attorney general with providing guidelines for determining whether a hate crime has been committed.
Herwitt highlighted the work of senators Patrick Leahy, Carl Levin, and Susan Collins as well as representatives John Conyers, Tammy Baldwin, and Mark Kirk as instrumental in ensuring passage of the measure. "And of course, the years of work that Senator Kennedy did," she added. "What a tribute that it's going to become law this year."
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who passed away this August, and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan originally introduced legislation to expand hate-crimes protections in both chambers of Congress in 2001. The legislation was renamed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act in honor of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.