Senate breaks filibuster on Asian-American hate crime bill

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Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON – The Senate opened debate Wednesday on legislation confronting the rise of potential hate crimes against Asian Americans, a growing problem during the coronavirus crisis that will also test whether the chamber can push past partisanship on an issue important to many constituents.

Typically, the Democratic-sponsored COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act might quickly face a filibuster, opposed by Republicans who prefer a different approach. But under the Senate leaders' agreement struck at the start of the year, Republicans and Democrats pledged to try to at least try to debate bills to see if they could reach agreement through the legislative process.

Senators voted overwhelmingly, 92-6, to proceed Wednesday to consideration of the bill.

Ahead of the vote, several leaders of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in Congress gave personal and heart-wrenching stories of the racism they and their constituents have faced, incidents on the rise during the virus outbreak.

“For more than a year, the Asian American community has been fighting two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-Asian hate,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., a co-author of the bill, said Tuesday at the Capitol.

Meng described well-documented but “horrifying” images of people being shoved and beaten in public attacks, and of her own conversations with survivors, including the families of the victims of deadly shootings last month in Atlanta. Six of those killed were women of Asian descent.

“Combating hate should not be a partisan issue. It’s about the safety of all Americans,” Meng said.

The bill is the most substantive congressional response to what has been an alarming rise in racist sentiment against Asian Americans, fueled in part by derogatory language about the virus’ origins in China. Donald Trump, while president, played into that narrative with derisive nicknames for the virus. The moment harks back to earlier eras of racism against Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and others of Asian heritage in this country.