Democrats plan Senate action on hate crimes, voting rights

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats are vowing action on several of their top priorities in April, including strengthening hate crime laws to include Asian Americans and restoring voting rights protections to combat minority voter suppression.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday announced steps the chamber will take after a two-week break, starting with a Senate vote on hate crimes legislation to give local law enforcement more resources to prosecute crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who have faced racist attacks during the coronavirus pandemic. Schumer also said the Senate “must take action” on gun control legislation after two mass shootings this month, including one in Georgia that left six Asian American women dead.

He said the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on a voting rights bill named after the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis — a companion to broad legislation Democrats are considering that would be the largest overhaul of U.S. election policy in a generation. The narrower bill would seek to restore elements of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, a decision that Democrats say left minority voters vulnerable to disenfranchisement.

Conspicuously absent from the spring agenda is immigration legislation, reflecting how movement on the issue has slowed in Congress in the face of Republican opposition. Democratic momentum has also been hurt by the Biden administration’s struggle to handle the large and growing numbers of unaccompanied minors seeking to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

Schumer says he believes the American people are ready for “big, bold comprehensive change.” But the prospects of the bills he promoted Thursday becoming law is distant, for now, as Republicans are broadly opposed to most of them and the Senate is narrowly divided 50-50. Lacking the 60 votes needed on most legislation, Schumer is planning to put legislation on the floor anyway and let Republicans go on record opposing it.

Democrats have discussed lowering that 60-vote threshold to get the legislation passed and some are pushing for it to happen now. While Schumer reiterated Thursday that “everything is on the table,” such a decision is likely months away.

If Republicans won’t work with Democrats, Schumer said, “our caucus will come together, and we will discuss the best way to produce that big, bold action.”

Senate Democrats also want to pass broader legislation on immigration, raising the minimum wage and strengthening background checks for gun purchases. But Schumer did not offer a timeline on any of those priorities, as lawmakers search for consensus on the details. Senators are expected to huddle privately in the coming weeks to work through those issues.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing this week on the gun legislation, and two bills that would expand background checks have already passed the House. Schumer said Democrats “want to pass the strongest bill that we can pass.”

While strengthening background checks is broadly popular among the American public, Senate Republicans have said they oppose the two House bills.

Casting forward, Schumer promised that the Senate will also act on a litany of other priorities, including fixing the country’s infrastructure, boosting broadband internet, combating climate change and reforming the U.S. Postal Service.

On the broad voting rights legislation — and on a series of other issues — Democrats are not only facing opposition from Republicans but also from one member in their own ranks, threatening their ability to pass it even with changes to the filibuster. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said Thursday that while he agrees with many parts of the voting rights bill, he believes Democrats must focus on the parts of the legislation where they can work with Republicans.

“Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government,” Manchin said in a statement.

The massive voting rights bill is a top priority for President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress, who see it as a forceful response to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country. It could shape election outcomes for years to come, striking down hurdles to voting, requiring more disclosure from political donors, restricting partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and bolstering election security and ethics laws.

Republicans are strongly opposed to the bill, arguing that it would tilt elections toward Democrats and take control of elections away from the states.

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