Trump looms over Senate's anti-Asian hate crimes battle
Ninety-two senators voted last week to advance an Asian American hate crimes bill. But its passage likely depends on Democrats agreeing to soften language that Republicans say ties hate crimes too narrowly to the characterization of COVID-19 as the “China virus.”
Even Republicans who voted to advance the hate crimes legislation sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) see it as a jab at President Trump. The bill links his characterization of COVID-19 as the “China virus” to racist and hateful acts.
Republicans also see language in the bill as opening the door to politically correct thought-police squads. Specifically, they are critical of a provision that instructs Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to issue guidance on “best practices” for language describing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Certainly, I condemn hate crimes against the Asian Americans or any other ethnic group,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an influential moderate who voted to advance the bill.
Still, Collins, who has been critical of Trump and voted to convict him in his impeachment trial, indicated she thinks the bill is too focused on linking hate crimes to how people talk about COVID-19.
“The bill has some drafting problems that I hope can be corrected. For example, it seems to say that the hate crime has to be linked to COVID, which is rather odd,” she told reporters.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who voted to advance the bill, said he’s concerned generally about the criminalization of speech.
“I generally have concerns about people being offended by something somebody said and it’s clearly protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “The parameters of impermissible speech are pretty clear by Supreme Court precedent."
“This is sort of a problem with where we are these days,” he added.
Republicans warn that if Democrats don’t agree to changes, there’s no guarantee there will be enough votes to bring the legislation up for a final yes-or-no vote.
Yet there are also some risks for Republicans given the very real rise in anti-Asian hate, which captured a new level of national attention after eight people including six Asian women were killed in a string of shootings in the Atlanta area.
GOP aides acknowledge there’s a risk to blocking hate-crimes legislation, which is why so many Republicans voted for the motion to proceed.
One Senate Republican aide said even though GOP lawmakers are skeptical of the bill, they didn’t want to block a floor debate and give Democrats more ammo to call them obstructionist.
“This is not what we wanted to pick a fight on the filibuster over,” said the source.
Senate Republicans want to broaden the legislation to avoid any appearance that they’re voting to rebuke the former president, who is quick to lash out at his critics.
And they now they are vulnerable to attacks if the bill is not changed given public comments fro the six GOP senators who voted against advancing the measure.
One of the six, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) says the measure is a thinly veiled “messaging” bill intended to punish criticism of China.
“This legislation … is not designed to do anything to prevent or punish actual crimes,” Cruz said in a statement. “It is instead a Democratic messaging vehicle designed to push the demonstrably false idea that it is somehow racist to acknowledge that Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China and that the Chinese Communist Party actively lied and suppressed information about the outbreak, allowing it to become a global pandemic.”
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who also voted against moving to the bill, said he sees it as taking a shot at Trump.
“We don’t need to get involved in that up here, to write a big bill that it’s racism if you say this virus that’s killed millions of people came from China,” he said. “Sure, it’s anti-Trump and he’s gone, we need to leave it out of it and do it the right way.”
Democrats are unlikely to want to soften the language since most if not all believe Trump does bear responsibility for the rise in anti-Asian American violence in the last year due to his rhetoric.
Democrats point to a study published last month in the American Journal of Public Health that found anti-Asian sentiment expressed in Trump’s tweets calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” perpetuated racist attitudes.
A GOP aide noted that Hirono, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution in May calling out Trump and other Republicans for calling COVID-19 the China virus.
“Inflammatory and racist rhetoric from officials at the highest level of our government has contributed to a disturbing rise in hate-crimes targeting Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic,” Hirono said at the time.
Duckworth linked attacks against Asian Americans to Trump’s rhetoric.
“After Donald Trump repeatedly used his platform to try to racialize this disease, we continue to see a spike in rhetoric and actions against the Asian American community because of misguided fears surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak,” she said.
A Senate Republican aide said the bill would have federal authorities issue guidance “on how to talk about the virus in a politically correct way.”
“That part of the bill is very explicitly designed to restrict and control how people talk about the virus and the fact that it originated from China,” said the aide.
GOP senators are leery of doing anything to provoke Trump, who lashed out at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last weekend for not supporting his unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
GOP senators said it was a signal that they want to put past feuds with Trump behind them and focus on unifying the party ahead of 2022.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) is hoping to broaden Hirono’s bill by amending it with the No Hate Act, a bipartisan proposal to improve reporting on hate crimes, encourage law enforcement training and education on hate crimes and provide grants for states to establish and run hate-crimes hotlines.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would allow colleagues to consider changes to the bill put forward by Collins and Moran.
“I’ve committed to start the process with the bipartisan Moran-Blumenthal amendment. I understand my Republican colleague from Maine has some modifications to the bill, which we welcome, and those negotiations are proceeding afoot,” he said Thursday.