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Congress is close to expanding what it means to commit a hate crime. The Senate is expected to vote, today, on adding to the federal law on hate crimes, by broadening the definition of victims and circumstances. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: It's been more than a decade since a young gay man named Matthew Shepherd was beaten to death in Wyoming. And for nearly that long, a bipartisan coalition has been trying to pass the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill considers hate crimes not only those perpetrated on the basis of race, national origin or religion - as has been the case for decades - but also on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a showdown vote for later today on whether this measure should be added to the defense authorization bill.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We must act in the name of Judy Shepherd, of her son Matthew Shepherd, whose family has fought tirelessly since his brutal death, his brutal murder, so that others may know justice. And if their country doesn't stand up for them, if we don't stand up for them, who will?

WELNA: Reid's decision to try to tack the hate crimes measure onto the defense bill, which is considered must-pass legislation, infuriated the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee - Arizona's John McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Arizona, Republican): 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 - more important than legislation concerning the defense of this nation.

WELNA: But as the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, pointed out, Republicans threw up procedural roadblocks when the majority tried bringing up the hate crimes bill earlier this year.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): When we asked for leave or unanimous consent from the Republican side to move to the hate crimes legislation there was objection. So it isn't as if 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.

WELNA: Aside from Senator 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 Ecuadorian named Jose Osvaldo who was beaten up late last year in New York.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, 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 antigay and anti-immigrant slurs. 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.

WELNA: And California Democrat Barbara Boxer pointed out that only violent acts could be prosecuted as hate crimes.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): This isn't about punishing speech. This isn't about punishing thoughts. If all that Matthew Shepherd 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.

WELNA: Under the bill the federal government can prosecute hate crimes if local and state officials are unable or unwilling to do so. Federal grants of up to $100,000 would be made to help investigate such crimes. Eighteen Senate Republicans have co-sponsored the legislation. And most, if not all, Democrats back it to the chagrin of Senator McCain.

Senator MCCAIN: The Senate will pass a highly controversial, highly explosive piece of legislation to be attached to the authorization for the defense and the security of this nation. That's wrong.

WELNA: McCain added that it's unfair to ask Senators to vote for a defense bill they support that contains a hate crimes bill they may not support. President Obama may also face an agonizing decision. He's said if the defense bill reaches his desk and still includes funding in it for seven F-22 jet fighters he says are not needed, he'll veto the bill. That defense bill may well include the hate crimes legislation, which the president strongly supports.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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