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Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations

Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are warming to the idea of studying reparations for African Americans whose ancestors suffered economically as a result of slavery and decades of repressive Jim Crow-era laws.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday told a small group of reporters that he supports legislation sponsored by Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines MORE (D-N.J.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeVictims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations MORE (D-Texas) that would set up a commission to explore reparations, signaling changing attitudes among Democrats on the charged issue.

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Booker said he “absolutely” thinks he’s getting traction as more Democrats come around to supporting an examination of the issue.

“I’m excited that people can really focus past the bluster of people who want to demonize the idea that we should study a way to address specific past economic harms and try to create more economic equality,” Booker, who is running for president, told The Hill.

“When people actually can focus in on what the actual bill says, it’s something that is frankly not objectionable,” he added. “I think there’s an openness to having this urgently needed conversation, especially as we deal with the continuing legacy of past specific economic harms that have helped to bake in structural inequality in our country.”

Booker’s bill has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, and he says he is actively seeking to expand the list.

Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMcConnell: 'Good chance' of deal with Biden on infrastructure Democrat Nikki Fried teases possible challenge to DeSantis Pavlich: The border crisis Biden said we could afford MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' Briahna Joy Gray: Warren not endorsing Sanders in 2020 was 'really frustrating' McConnell hits Democratic critics of Israel MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response Briahna Joy Gray: Warren not endorsing Sanders in 2020 was 'really frustrating' House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (I-Vt.), Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar Klobuchar offers tribute to her father, who died Wednesday The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting Senate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAustin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands Gillibrand touts legislation to lower drug costs: This idea 'is deeply bipartisan' A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces MORE (D-N.Y.), who are all running for the Democratic presidential nomination, have co-sponsored Booker’s bill.

Race relations and economic inequality have become central topics of debate ahead of the 2020 election.

President TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE sparked a heated debate this week over what constitutes racist language when he tweeted on Sunday that four Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came,” even though all of them are American citizens and three were born in the United States.

Schumer, who on Monday excoriated Trump over his comments, told reporters the following day that racism is “the poison of America.” He then pledged to support establishing a commission to study reparations for slavery and discriminatory laws.

“The disparities in race affect everything, not just the obvious things,” Schumer said. “The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are still with us.”

But while there is growing support among Democrats on Capitol Hill for studying reparations, lawmakers warn it’s a tricky issue.

A nationwide poll conducted in July 2018 by Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that 26 percent of respondents supported reparations, compared with 47 percent who were opposed to the idea.

That level of support was unchanged from a Marist poll two years earlier that found 26 percent supported reparations, while 68 percent said the federal government should not compensate the descendants of slaves.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Biden's internal polling touts public support for immigration reform The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting MORE (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of Booker’s bill, said “looking at alternatives is reasonable,” and that he would like to hear the suggestions of a special commission on reparations.

As an alumnus of Georgetown University, Durbin noted that students at his alma mater voted earlier this year to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves whose forced labor benefited the school.

“That was the right thing to do,” he said about the vote.

But Durbin said the question of how and whether to pay reparations to tens of millions of African Americans is tough to answer.

“It is impossible to argue against the notion that a grave injustice took place, but we are far removed — generations removed — from those who were directly impacted,” he said. “That’s why I want to hear suggestions about some other approach, or some approach that is fair and acceptable.”

“I voted for the reparations for those who were interned in the Japanese American internment camps, but these were specific people who were wronged, and they and their families benefited from our decision. This is a bigger challenge,” he added.

The legislation sponsored by Booker and Jackson Lee would establish a 13-member commission to examine the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery and recommend “appropriate remedies.”

The president would appoint three members, the Speaker of the House would appoint three members, and the president pro tempore of the Senate would appoint one member.

The other six members would be selected from “the major civil society and reparations organizations that have historically championed the cause of reparatory justice,” which would likely tilt the commission strongly in favor of substantial monetary reparations.

Yahoo Finance in June estimated the legislation, if enacted, could cost as much as $17.1 trillion.

William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University and expert on reparations, told The New York Times in May that about 30 million Americans could be eligible for compensation.

The issue has become more prominent in Washington since even a few months ago, when Booker introduced his legislation in early April.

As recently as late June, Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinIf you want Julie Su at the DOL, don't point to her resume Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' MORE (Calif.) suggested the thorny issue was “better left alone” or refused to comment about it altogether.

But Schumer’s statement this week in support of studying reparations sent a clear message to the Senate Democratic Conference that the issue cannot be avoided.

Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedBiden officials testify that white supremacists are greatest domestic security threat Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech MORE (D-R.I.), who declined to comment a few weeks ago on the proposal to study reparations, said Wednesday that reparations are “something we should consider” and that he would take a look at legislation to study them.

Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Senate poised for all-day brawl over sweeping elections bill MORE (D-Ore.) joined as a co-sponsor to the bill Tuesday.

“I’m supportive of study. I think there’s a lot of complex questions that I think the commission might be able to shed a little light on, so I think it makes sense to hold a conversation,” he said.

But Merkley added that the issue “doesn’t come up very often” in his home state of Oregon, where only 2 percent of the population is African American.

Harris told NPR in March that many African Americans suffer from “untreated and undiagnosed trauma” that can be traced back to slavery and discrimination and argued “you need to put resources and direct resources — extra resources — into those communities that have experienced that trauma.”

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Her position reflects the evolution of the Democratic Party in recent years.

When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop Democrat buys Funny Or Die Michelle Obama describes Barack's favorite movies: 'Everybody is sad, then they die' Obama calls on governments to 'do their part' in increasing global vaccine supply MORE, the nation’s first black president, ran for the Oval Office in 2008, he came out against monetary reparations.

He voiced concern in a candidate questionnaire submitted to the NAACP that “reparations would be an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year.”

Eleven years later, Democratic senators are saying it’s a topic that deserves serious legislative  attention.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenators ask airlines to offer cash refunds for unused flight credits Civilian Climate Corps can help stem rural-urban divide Senate votes to nix Trump rule limiting methane regulation MORE (D-Mass.), a bill co-sponsor, said the matter is “something that we absolutely have to put on the agenda” so that Congress “can understand the whole history of the issue.”