Patient Conyers hopes to move slavery bill during an Obama administration

After waiting nearly two decades, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is well positioned to move legislation that could lead the federal government to apologize for slavery and pay reparations.

But the Judiciary Committee chairman is willing to wait two more years, when he hopes Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will be in the White House.

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In every Congress since 1989, Conyers has introduced the controversial measure that falls under the sole jurisdiction of the Judiciary panel. But the legislation was dormant in the Republican-led House and failed to move through committee when then-Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas) headed the Judiciary Committee before the GOP revolution of 1994.
Despite having finally arrived at the head of the powerful committee, the 77-year-old Conyers is prepared to wait yet longer and is biding his time.

Conyers noted that his bill calls for the president to appoint three members to a seven-member commission to analyze the effects of slavery. The House Speaker would make three appointments, while the president pro tempore of the Senate would tap one member.

Even if he had the votes to make his bill law — a big if — Conyers does not want President Bush’s appointees to have a role on such a panel.

The Michigan lawmaker, who has strongly backed Obama for president, said he has not called on the senator to endorse his measure. “I don’t want to put him on the spot,” Conyers told The Hill.

Obama’s campaign did not respond to requests for information about the senator’s position on the bill, H.R. 40. Yet Obama’s stance could be extremely important as he and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) vigorously court the black vote and wrap themselves in the mantle of the civil rights movement.

Both front-runners visited Selma, Ala., this month to commemorate the sacrifices of black demonstrators who were assaulted crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

The Clinton campaign also did not comment on the Conyers bill.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), another 2008 White House hopeful, supports the Conyers measure and a formal apology for slavery. In a statement, Richardson said, “Slavery is one of the most tragic periods of our great nation, and we continue to struggle with the legacy of slavery.”

Conyers’s measure recently attracted the cosponsorship of civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Lewis said he believes the federal government should follow Virginia’s recent lead and apologize for slavery, though he opposes reparations.

The Bush administration indicated opposition to Conyers’s bill in 2001, when then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said living African-Americans should not be paid for the wrongs of slavery.

Conyers countered that reparations should not be dismissed prematurely, pointing out that trust funds have been established for Holocaust survivors, World War II-era internment victims and Native Americans.

The bill instructs the commission to review whether “any form of compensation to the descendants of African slaves is warranted.” The legislation adds that if the commission approves such compensation, it should determine who should be eligible for the reparations. The commission would be appropriated $8 million.

Most of the cosponsors of the measure are black, including Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). White members who back it include Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and John Olver (D-Mass.).

Senior leadership lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), have never cosponsored H.R. 40.

Freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a white member who replaced Rep. Harold Ford (D), recently introduced a bill that calls on the U.S. to apologize for slavery. The measure has 36 cosponsors, including Conyers.
Cohen said he was aware that Conyers wants to wait on H.R. 40, but expressed optimism that the 110th Congress would move forward on his measure.

The number of the Conyers bill, H.R. 40, was chosen by Conyers as a symbol of the 40 acres and a mule that the U.S. initially promised freed slaves. Conyers said the Judiciary Committee will likely hold a hearing on H.R. 40 this fall.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) formally backs the Cohen bill, but is not a cosponsor of the Conyers measure. The presidential campaigns of Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and former Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) did not comment for this article.

Stacey Pistritto contributed to this report.

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