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House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate

House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate
© Greg Nash

House Democrats on Wednesday will breathe new life into the debate over slavery reparations with a historic hearing on Capitol Hill.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will bring in big names like actor Danny Glover and author Ta-Nehisi Coates to generate media buzz around an issue that has languished in Congress for generations.

The hearing follows a bill from Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeRon Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin Black lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory 40-year march: Only one state doesn't recognize Juneteenth MORE (D-Texas) that would form a national commission to study whether descendants of slaves should receive reparations.

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While the bill has been backed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerSenate on collision course over Trump DOJ subpoenas Black Democrats press leaders for reparations vote this month House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack GOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection MORE (D-Calif.), as well as the Democrats’ liberal base, it’s unclear where the legislation goes from here.

Reparations have also been a hot topic for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates vying for African American voters, a critical voting bloc in states like South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerCongress must act to correct flaws in the First Step Act Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Zombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers MORE (D-N.J.), one White House hopeful, has authored a companion bill in the upper chamber to study reparations.

Booker will testify at Wednesday’s hearing, joining Glover and Coates, whose 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” reignited a national dialogue about the issue after it was published in The Atlantic.

However, some in the party are skeptical that Pelosi would bring the divisive issue to the full House floor during a crucial election cycle where Democrats are trying to hold the House and win back the Senate and White House.

The reparations bill would be a tough vote for swing-district and swing-state Democrats. And it would amount to a Democratic messaging bill since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPortman: Republicans are 'absolutely' committed to bipartisan infrastructure bill Graham calls voting rights bill 'biggest power grab' in history The wild card that might save Democrats in the midterms MORE (R-Ky.) has signaled the bill would go nowhere in his chamber.

“I would be astonished if Nancy Pelosi brought that to the floor,” one House Democrat told The Hill on Tuesday. “She is very sensitive to ‘the will of the people,’ and I doubt reparations enjoys much public support.”

Added one Democratic chief of staff: “I don’t think it will move.”

Nadler has not set a date for marking up the bill in the full Judiciary Committee. And a Pelosi spokesperson declined to comment on a possible floor vote.

Still, leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are remaining optimistic. CBC Chairwoman Karen BassKaren Ruth BassBlack Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Tim Scott: Could be 'very hard' to reach police reform deal by June deadline Police reform negotiations enter crucial stretch MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, predicted the House would take action on reparations given that Democrats control the agenda and the floor.

And Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric RichmondTrey Gowdy sets goal of avoiding ideological echo chamber with Fox News show The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden faces pressure amid infrastructure negotiations Buttigieg acknowledges 'daylight' between White House, GOP on infrastructure MORE (D-La.), the CBC chairman before Bass, said he hoped Wednesday’s hearing — the first focusing on the issue in more than a decade — indicates impending congressional movement.  

“I would be very disappointed if it did not — that’s what the goal is. We’re not having a hearing just for our health,” he continued.

“The real question and conversation has to be how to you repair the damage that was done and the remnants of slavery? The bill calls for our body to study it; I think that is warranted, so my assumption is it goes to the floor.”  

The hearing will examine “the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenWray grilled on FBI's handling of Jan. 6 Viola Fletcher, oldest living survivor of Tulsa Race Massacre, testifies in Congress 'seeking justice' Lobbying world MORE (D-Tenn.), decided to schedule the hearing so that it falls on Juneteenth, a day marking the abolition of slavery in America.

Booker’s legislation is historic: It’s the only reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate after Reconstruction. Like Jackson Lee’s bill, the senator’s bill would establish a commission to examine the impacts of slavery in the U.S. — from its inception until the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and recommend ways to compensate the descendants of slaves.

The five other senators running for the Democratic nomination — Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandGillibrand: Military must make changes beyond sexual assault cases COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave Ocasio-Cortez, Gillibrand and Moulton call for more high-speed rail funding in infrastructure package MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden, Harris send well wishes for Father's Day The U.S. and Mexico must revamp institutions supporting their joint efforts Harris signals a potential breakthrough in US-Mexico cooperation MORE (Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: The center strikes back Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax MORE (Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: The center strikes back Sanders against infrastructure deal with more gas taxes, electric vehicle fees Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight MORE (I-Vt.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl Hillicon Valley: Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC | Lawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cyber during summit with Putin | TSA working on additional security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC MORE (Minn.) — have all signed on as co-sponsors.

The Jackson Lee bill, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, has 64 co-sponsors, including Nadler, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDemocrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure MORE (N.Y.).

But even if the Jackson Lee bill clears the House, McConnell made it clear Tuesday he won’t take it up in the Senate, arguing it would be incredibly difficult to figure out who exactly should be compensated.

"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We've tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president," McConnell told reporters in the Capitol.

"I think we're always a work in progress in this country but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it,” he added. “First of all it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”

Some supporters of reparations have pushed for cash payments to descendants of slaves, but other ideas include college scholarships and subsidized home mortgages for African Americans.

The Capitol building itself, along with many other landmarks in Washington, was built by slaves.

Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonBiden offers traditional address in eerie setting Congressional Black Caucus members post selfie celebrating first WH visit in four years Rep. Frederica Wilson shares her famous hat collection with Netflix MORE (D-Fla.), a CBC member, said lawmakers owe it to the country to at least study and debate the idea of reparations.

“It would open up a conversation on the actual contributions that African Americans made to the building and the foundation of this nation,” Wilson said. “Every time I walk through the Capitol and bring students there, I explain how thousands of people were employed with no pay to build the Capitol and the city of Washington.”

“Thousands of Africans’ lives were lost in the building of the Capitol. These are names we will never know,” she added. “It’s hallowed ground you’re walking on.”

Wilson said she believes Pelosi is committed to the reparations issue; the Speaker, Wilson said, is planning to join CBC members on a trip to Ghana this summer to mark the 400th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade.

“Yes, I think she’s gonna put it on the floor,” Wilson said.

Jordain Carney contributed.