U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on senators Thursday to expand federal statutes against hate crimes to include protections for gays, women and people with disabilities.
The statutes currently provide for federal prosecution and increased penalties for violent crimes motivated by race or religion.
The new legislation has been 10 years in the making. As deputy attorney general more than a decade ago, Holder testified in support of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill still carries the name of the 21-year-old gay man who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998. This time, while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder cited the recent killing of a black security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The alleged shooter is a white supremacist.
"As the recent tragedy of the Holocaust museum demonstrates, our nation continues to suffer from horrific acts of violence by individuals consumed with bigotry and prejudice," he said.
The bill would aid local prosecutors in dealing with hate-crimes cases and would allow federal prosecutors to step in when asked, or when they think it is appropriate.
The legislation hasn't changed much since it was first introduced, and neither has the debate. Democrats such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer support the bill.
"If we vote down this legislation, we are saying in a certain sense it is OK to physically harm people who you don't like because of who they are, and that's a bad thing," Schumer said.
Republicans such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions say special protections may have been necessary for some groups in the past, but don't make sense anymore.
"African-Americans couldn't go to certain schools. There were other sorts of routine biases against them. Out of that was why this bill passed," Sessions said. "But today, I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination."
Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who said he has "a lot of questions" about the measure, questioned whether a new law is necessary, asking whether state and local prosecutors are failing to go after these kinds of crimes.
"Do we have statistics that say we have these 80,000 crimes and 5,000 of them the states did a poor job on them?" he asked Holder.
Holder said he had no such statistics, but said hate crimes can be expensive and difficult to prosecute, and that states may need help taking them on.
"What we are looking for is an ability in those instances, in those rare instances where there is an inability or unwillingness by state or local jurisdiction to proceed, that the federal government would be able to fill that gap," he said. "That's why we think this legislation is so necessary."
House lawmakers passed a similar bill in April. Both chambers have approved the measure at one time or another over the past few years, but they have never managed to pass it in the same year and get it signed into law.
Holder and the Obama administration are pushing hard for this Congress to be the one that succeeds.