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Senate Democrats wish talk on reparations would go away

Senate Democrats wish talk on reparations would go away
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Senate Democrats are not fans of legislation on reparations for slavery, which has become a hot topic in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Democratic lawmakers acknowledge that slavery is a terrible stain on the nation’s history and that African Americans were subjected to unjust and racist laws for decades after abolition.

But the question of figuring out who should pay for economic harm accrued over hundreds of years is a political land mine.

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Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats worry Senate will be graveyard for Biden agenda Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget China has already infiltrated America's institutions MORE (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she understands why some thought leaders, such as author Ta-Nehisi Coates, are calling for reparations, but warned the issue is divisive.

“I understand why. I also understand the wound that it opens and the trials and tribulations it’s going to bring about. Some things are just better left alone and I think that’s one of those things,” she said.

“This is a major blemish on American democracy that has lasted for over 100 years now,” she said of slavery and discriminatory laws that followed the Civil War. “It’s not going to change and we have to learn from it and I think we have.”

Many Democrats don’t want to talk about whether reparations should be considered.

“No comment,” said Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense: Tim Kaine moves to claw back war powers authority | Study on sexual harassment and assault in the military Commissioners tasked with scrubbing Confederate base names sworn-in at first meeting CORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report MORE (D-R.I.), who punctuated his answer with a slice of his hand.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Senate Democrats vote to provide 0 unemployment benefits into September MORE (D-Ore.) said he was too busy to weigh in on the complex topic.

“I can’t deal with a big issue when I’m on the fly,” he said as he hustled to a meeting in the Capitol.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session COVID-19 relief debate stalls in Senate amid Democratic drama First Black secretary of Senate sworn in MORE (D-Vt.) said “I saw something in the press about it. I haven’t even looked at it.”

“I’ll be happy to look at it,” he added.

Support for reparations has steadily grown since June 2014 when Coates, as a writer for The Atlantic magazine, wrote his landmark essay: “The Case for Reparations.”

The subject gained more prominence last week when Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeBiden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Biden turns focus to winter storm with Texas trip Obama says reparations 'justified' MORE (D-Texas), a member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and sponsor of the House reparations measure, held a hearing on reparations at which Coates testified. 

On the campaign trail, Sen. Cory BookerCory Booker'Bloody Sunday' to be commemorated for first time without John Lewis It's in America's best interest to lead global COVID-19 vaccine distribution ABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent MORE (D-N.J.) has spearheaded the push for reparations. He is the sponsor of the Senate bill that would set up a commission to study the impact of slavery and discrimination against African Americans and make recommendations on reparation proposals to the descendants of slaves.

Booker’s bill has 14 Senate co-sponsors, including five presidential hopefuls: Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it Trump sued by Democrat over mob attack on Capitol MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage, implying that it's sexist Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE (I-Vt.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package Democrats: Minimum wage isn't the only issue facing parliamentarian MORE (D-Colo.).

But many other Democrats are keeping their distance.

“I haven’t seen it and I don’t have any opinion about it,” Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden holds off punishing Saudi crown prince, despite US intel Senate confirms Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador The Memo: Biden bets big on immigration MORE (D-N.J.) said of Booker’s legislation.

Other Democrats say they need to learn more about it.

“Still learning about it but open to the idea, certainly. I find Cory to be one of the more thoughtful people I’ve ever known,” said Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichDemocrats worry Senate will be graveyard for Biden agenda Democrats offer bill on Puerto Rico statehood USPS adding up to 165K fuel efficient or electric delivery vehicles MORE (D-N.M.).

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Hillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships MORE (D-Va.) said of Booker’s bill, “I’m looking at the legislation [on setting up a commission] but have not taken a position on it.”

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One Democratic senator said reparations is one more issue getting touted on the campaign trail that Republicans will likely use as ammunition against other Democratic candidates in 2020, along with proposals such as “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and free college education.

The lawmaker, who requested anonymity, said Democrats would be better off focusing on topics that unite voters and where they have an advantage over Republicans, like protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions.

“In a presidential campaign where people are eyeing different constituencies based on where they’re trying to run and where they’re trying to do well and break through the pack, that makes a lot of sense. I don’t think that has much of a chance in the Congress we’re in,” said the senator.

“If you’re just talking presidential Democratic primaries, there’s interest in these issues and hearing it explained. When you start getting into specific Senate races, I don’t know how that helps, the contrast of a presidential candidate being for something and a Democratic Senate candidate not taking a position,” the lawmaker said, adding that Republican Senate candidates are going to “have a lot of issues like that” to pull from the presidential race.

The lawmaker expressed concern that with more than 20 candidates running for the Democratic nomination, the party’s message is going to be all over the place.

“Central for us is trying to get one message and be disciplined, because the president is going to be incredibly disciplined,” the senator said. “They’re starting messaging on things they haven’t even accomplished but making it sound like they accomplished things.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package GOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote MORE (R-Ky.) says his strategy to keep GOP control of the Senate is to tie Democratic candidates to liberal proposals being pushed by Harris, Booker, Warren, Sanders and other White House hopefuls.

McConnell told reporters in April that Republicans need to say to voters, “if you’re uncomfortable with things like the Green New Deal and ‘Medicare for None,’ the best way to avoid that is to have a Republican Senate.”

McConnell last week dismissed reparations as unworkable.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” he said.

It’s a good issue for Republicans because it unites the GOP and divides Democrats.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottWhy paid internships matter for foreign policy careers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote Sole GOP vote on House police reform bill says he 'accidentally pressed the wrong voting button' MORE (R-S.C.), the only African American Republican in the Senate, last week dismissed reparations as a “non-starter.”

In an interview with The Hill this week, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE indicated he’s not in favor of reparations.

“I think it’s a very unusual thing,” Trump said of the possibility of reparations. “You have a lot of — it’s been a very interesting debate. I don’t see it happening, no.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenate rejects Cruz effort to block stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants Overnight Defense: White House open to reforming war powers | Army base might house migrant children | Fauci scolds military on vaccine White House open to reforming war powers amid bipartisan push MORE (Ind.) said reparations is targeted squarely at the most liberal voters.

 “I think it will excite the far left of the Democratic Party, which is exactly what it’s designed to do,” he said.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsSenate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote The eight Democrats who voted 'no' on minimum wage Justice Democrats call moderates' votes against minimum wage hike 'unconscionable' MORE (D-Del.), a co-sponsor of Booker’s bill on reparations, said slavery “has left a long and real and lasting impact” that needs to be addressed.

But he also acknowledged “there are real complexities around confronting this issue.”

“Figuring out a viable path forward in terms of who would be compensated and how and from what source of funding is a very thorny question,” he said.