Forty-one years after enacting the first federal hate crimes law, the Democrats who control Congress are poised to expand the scope of that legislation, with the Senate set to vote as early as Thursday on a measure increasing both the kinds of victims and the circumstances covered by hate crimes.
For years, a bipartisan coalition has been working to get passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after a young gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten and murdered in 1998 as his assailants yelled anti-gay epithets. Current federal hate crime laws cover violence motivated by race, national origin or religion.
The new law would expand the definition of a hate-crime to violence motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identification or disability. The House passed a version of the bill in April.
Sen. Maj. Leader Harry Reid has called for a showdown vote on Thursday to determine whether the measure should be added to the defense bill.
"We must act in the name of Judy Shepard, of her son Matthew Shepard, whose family has fought tirelessly since his brutal death, his brutal murder, so that others may know justice," Reid said Wednesday.
"If their country doesn't stand up for them, if we don't stand up for them, who will?" he asked.
While some GOP senators also support the legislation, Arizona Sen. John McCain is among the vocal GOP critics who want to push through the defense authorization but not the hate crimes bill.
"While we have young Americans fighting and dying in two wars, we're going to take up the hate crimes bill because the majority leader thinks that's more important … than legislation concerning the defense of this nation," McCain said.
But Democrats tried earlier this year to bring the bill up for a vote but were shot down, said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
"When we asked for leave or unanimous consent from the Republican side to move to the hate crimes legislation, there was objection," he said. "So, it isn't as though we haven't tried to go through regular order. This seems to be the only path we can use to bring this matter to a conclusion."
Aside from McCain, those opposed to the hate crimes bill remained silent while supporters took to the Senate floor calling for its passage. One of them was New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who told of an Ecuadorean named Jose Osvaldo who was beaten up late last year in New York.
"Jose, a father of two, was walking home with his arm around his brother, and was viciously attacked with an aluminum baseball bat while his perpetrators yelled anti-gay and anti-immigrant slurs," Schumer said.
"This legislation sends a clear message to those perpetrators and to all others: In America, we do not tolerate acts of violence motivated by hatred of vulnerable communities."
California Democrat Barbara Boxer said the measure "isn't about punishing speech. This isn't about punishing thoughts.
"If all that Matthew Shepard had to deal with were taunts about his sexuality, his sexual preference, that would be one thing. He had to deal with murderers who tortured him," she said.
Under the bill, the federal government could prosecute hate crimes if state or local governments are unwilling or unable to do so. Federal grants of up to $100,000 would be provided to investigate hate crimes.
While President Obama strongly supports the hate crimes legislation, the Democrat move to attach the bill to the defense authorization puts the White House in a bind. Republicans are pushing for a provision to fund more F-22 stealth fighter jets – at a cost of $140 million each. The president opposes the jets as unnecessary and has threatened to veto the defense authorization if the F-22 funding is included. If Obama vetoes the authorization, he would also kill the hate crimes bill.