Senate overwhelmingly passes bill to encourage reporting anti-Asian bias after Dems soften language

The Senate in a rare show of bipartisanship Thursday overwhelmingly approved, 94-1, a measure intended to increase the reporting of anti-Asian harassment during the pandemic.

The bill is aimed at getting a better handle on the extent of reports of the harassment of Asian Americans by making it easier for Asian American immigrants to report crimes and incidents despite language barriers. It now moves to the Democratic-controlled House, where it is expected to pass.

Under the measure, the Justice Department would issue recommendations to state and local law enforcement agencies to encourage more reporting of bias incidents, including being able to make complaints online in multiple languages.

It also provides funding to state and local governments for measures like creating a hotline to report hate crimes and incidents. It would further establish a position in the Justice Department to push law enforcement agencies to expedite their reporting of all hate crimes.

Only Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, voted against the measure. He told reporters earlier that he was concerned the bill was too broad.

To win Republican support to allow the bill to come up for a vote, Democrats were forced to back off on their push to discourage terms like the “China virus,” used by former President Trump and others to describe the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

While Republicans have condemned reports of anti-Asian incidents, ranging from name-calling to physical attacks, the debate over terms like the “Kung Flu” has become a cultural flashpoint.

Democrats said they have created a climate that has incited attacks and harassment against Asian Americans. But Republicans insisted on removing a provision sought by Democrats that would have instructed the federal government to issue recommendations to “mitigate racially discriminatory language in describing the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That was a “crazy radical idea,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican.

“The flawed piece of legislation had provisions tailor-made to muzzle free speech,” Mr. Cotton said.

“It wasn’t anti-Spanish to call the influenza outbreak the Spanish Flu.”

To win Republican support, bill sponsor Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, agreed to expand the measure to try to improve the reporting of discrimination for all people, including people with disabilities.

The bill still emphasizes incidents involving Asian Americans, acknowledging that there has been a “dramatic increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”

The legislation also mentions the March 16 shooting deaths of eight people in Georgia, including six Asian Americans, although whether the attacks were motivated by race is still under investigation.

Despite the concession to the GOP, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the bill exemplifies what lawmakers of both parties can do when they work together.

“Passing this bill will send two very important messages,” Mr. Schumer said before the vote. “We say to the Asian-American community that their government is paying attention to them, has heard their concerns, and will respond to protect them.”

The bill will also “send a message to the country that should be all too obvious by now,” Mr. Schumer said.

“Hate crimes will not be tolerated. And federal law enforcement will do everything in its power to detect, deter, and if necessary, prosecute crimes to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

Thus far, ambiguous and incomplete statistics on Asian hate crimes have raised questions about the extent to which the incidents are on the rise, and whether name-calling rises to the level of a hate crime.

Despite the talk of bipartisanship, Democrats in party-line votes rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, which would have limited the bill to only increasing the reporting of incidents that rise to the level of being a hate crime.

According to the FBI, hate crimes are limited to a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” The bureau notes that “hate itself is not a crime — and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat said the proposal would limit the ability of the Justice Department to track what Asian Americans are facing, even if the incidents do not rise to the level of an actual crime.

The Senate also voted down on strict party lines other Republican amendments aimed at other forms of discrimination against Asian Americans and toward places of worship during the pandemic.

Democrats rejected a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, that would have banned federal funding for colleges and universities that discriminate against Asian Americans in enrollment. The proposal was in reference to a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that Harvard University’s affirmative-action policies work against Asian Americans. But Ms. Hirono noted that a lower court has upheld the policies.

Democrats also killed an amendment proposed by Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, which would have instructed the Justice Department to investigate why local governments have allowed bars and restaurants to reopen during the pandemic, but continue to bar or limit people from gathering at churches, synagogues or other places of worship.

“Many Americans have accepted these restrictions as our nation was grappling with a new and deadly virus and the restrictions were only supposed to be temporary,” said Mr. Cruz in supporting Mr. Lee’s proposal. “But as the weeks and months dragged on, states lifted restrictions on restaurants, on casinos, on museums while keeping tight restrictions in place for synagogues, for churches, for temples, for mosques and other religious gatherings.”

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