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One hundred forty-four years after the end of the Civil War and 45 years after it passed the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Senate has apologized for slavery. It also formally apologized, for the first time, for segregationist Jim Crow laws. The resolution was approved by voice vote, unanimously.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: The Senate chamber was nearly empty this morning as Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin rose to call for a measure he said was long overdue the descendents of more than four million black people who were enslaved in the U.S.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary, collective response to a past collective injustice. So it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws.

WELNA: The congressional apology is made to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States for, quote, "the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors." That's followed, though, by a disclaimer which says nothing in the resolution authorizes any claim against the United States.

Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who cosponsored the measure, says that disclaimer was necessary to win the support of Senators who feared the apology could be used by African-Americans seeking reparations.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): It was a difficult negotiation. We had to get the reparation issue right. We said it doesn't solve it. It doesn't give it, it doesn't solve it. And that was a key part of a negotiation that was touchy.

WELNA: Last year, the House passed a similar resolution, but without the reparations disclaimer. New York House Democrat Gregory Meeks, whose a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says he's not sure he supports the Senate's reparations disclaimer.

Representative GREGORY MEEKS (Democrat, New York): If it is - can be construed to mean that, you know, it rules out we're going to apologize, but we're ruling out any possible suits or anything in the future that may bring in reparations, then that's a problem.

WELNA: Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, who sponsored last year's House resolution, says he hopes the House can soon pass the Senate's apology. But he wants it done by voice vote.

Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): This should be a congenial, "Kumbaya" moment, and a roll call could expose some fissures in what should be a cohesive spirit of apology and rectitude and more perfect union.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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