Race debate grips Congress

The barbed debate over racial justice is exploding this week on Capitol Hill, as Democrats in both chambers are charging ahead with a host of proposals to empower minorities amid the national clash over police bias, brutality and the future of law enforcement.

In the House, two panels considered bills Wednesday to promote reparations for the descendants of slaves and to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., the nation’s historically Black capital city.

In the Senate, Democrats advanced their efforts to seat President Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division and to pass legislation combating the recent rash of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.

And Democrats in both chambers are fighting to enact legislation to expand voting rights, with particular designs on empowering Black and other minority voters.

It’s all happening against the turbulent backdrop of the televised trial examining the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis — an event that’s captivated the country and fueled Democrats’ push to overhaul policing nationwide.

Calls for those reforms have grown louder still this week, after another Black man, Daunte Wright, 20, was fatally shot by another law enforcement officer just north of Minneapolis, sparking days of protests and clashes with police reminiscent of the outrage that followed Floyd’s death over the summer.

For Democrats on Capitol Hill, and particularly for members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the moment is ripe for Congress to move transformative legislation addressing age-old racial disparities. And in Biden’s ascension they see an open window.

“It’s a heavy moment, because we’re in a heavy period of time,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the fifth-ranking House Democrat and a prominent member of the CBC.

“America has come a long way. We still have a long way to go. But we have to deal with the reality that racism has been in the soil of this country since 1619,” he said.

Democrats’ focus on racial justice initiatives is hardly new. With control of the House in the previous Congress, party leaders were able to pass a number of bills designed to tackle disparities across different facets of American society, including a voting rights expansion; provisions designed to ensure equal access to COVID-19 therapies; the D.C. statehood proposal; and a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system, named after George Floyd.

With Biden now in office, lawmakers said, it’s a no-brainer to move many of those same priorities to mark his 100-day agenda.

“I think it’s just a process of trying to move through the agenda,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). “We were doing a lot of this in the previous Congress. This is just what you’re going to see from a Democratic majority.

“These are our values; these are our priorities.”

Yet Biden and the Democrats also owe much of their election success in 2020 to minority voters — a trend particularly pronounced in Georgia, where a massive outreach campaign by party activists flipped two Senate seats in their favor, thereby delivering them control of the upper chamber.

Georgia Republicans, in turn, have adopted new voting restrictions heading into 2022 — efforts being mimicked by GOP legislators in states across the country.

And some Democrats are also pointing to another factor driving the aggressive effort to fast-track racial justice bills: former President Trump, whose track record on issues of race over the course of his presidency included a Muslim ban, the separation of migrant children at the Southern border, and an equivocal response to the deadly white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Those racial tensions — largely partisan — have only been fueled by the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to block the certification of Trump’s defeat. Shortly after the deadly rampage, Trump tweeted his support for the “great patriots” who had sought to preserve his “landslide” victory — a tweet that was quickly removed from Twitter.

Federal law enforcement officials have arrested hundreds of rioters, including dozens associated with white supremacist groups, in connection to the Jan. 6 riot.

“The president sought to inflame communities and sought to divide the country,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “All of these race-based attacks, it really focused our energy and attention on wanting to stop that in the future and to ensure that we were speaking the priorities of the American people.”

It’s unclear how far the Democrats’ racial justice agenda will travel. Proposals addressing voting rights and police reform have already passed through the House, and the D.C. statehood bill appears to have the support to follow suit. But reparations will be a heavier lift.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), was poised to pass through the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday — the first time Congress will have voted to approve the concept. The bill does not call for direct payments to those harmed by slavery and its legacy, nor does it promote any other specific remedial approach. Instead, it would form a commission — comprised of members appointed by the White House and both chambers of Congress — to study racial inequities and recommend policy solutions.

Still, Democrats are bracing for a wave of Republican attacks on the proposal — “It’ll be wildly mischaracterized and politicized,” Huffman said — and some Democratic moderates are already approaching the bill warily. 

“We’ll see with leadership, how far they want to go, and how far they want to put a point of emphasis on that, as opposed to the economic agenda,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.). “Quite frankly, I think we’d be well-served going into the midterms if we focus on economic security issues for everyone.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday did not commit to bringing the bill to the floor, saying he was waiting to see what the Judiciary Committee would do. In the meantime, he called on Biden to form his own reparations panel from the White House — a process that would not force any centrist Democrats to take what might prove a difficult vote.

“We’ll see what the committee does and I’m going to be urging the president also to see if he could move ahead on this,” Hoyer said on a press call.

Jeffries noted that Biden, on the campaign trail, had identified four different crises currently facing the country, pertaining to health, economy, climate and racial justice. He, and many liberals like him, are hoping the president stays true to his word to address them all.

“It’s great we have a president who recognizes we have a moment where we have to lean in to dealing with systemic racism,” Jeffries said. “And I suspect that’s exactly what President Biden and his administration will do moving forward.”

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Black Lives Matter DC statehood Donald Trump Hakeem Jeffries Jared Huffman Joe Biden Pete Aguilar police reform Reparations Ron Kind Sheila Jackson Lee Steny Hoyer voting rights
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