Senate

GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday

Republican senators are debating whether Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, should replace Columbus Day on the federal government's list of official holidays.

A bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is being held up by an internal Senate GOP squabble.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), an outspoken budget hawk, doesn't want to add another paid holiday to the calendar.

Johnson says if Juneteenth is made a federal holiday, another paid federal holiday should come off the schedule. He's proposing scrapping Columbus Day but is open to eliminating another holiday instead.

"I'm just saying let's replace it with something. I chose Columbus Day just because it's probably the most lightly celebrated and less disruptive to anybody's schedule" to cut from the calendar of federal holidays, he said. 

Johnson on Wednesday said "we have an alternate bill" and that he is "talking to some of my colleagues."

Johnson said he's "happy to celebrate the emancipation with a national holiday but I just don't think we should be, when we're already blowing a hole in the budget right now, offering another paid day off for federal employees."

Cornyn, who is up for reelection this fall, has put his bill in the "hotline," which means he's checking in with Senate colleagues about moving his Juneteenth bill to the floor soon and passing it by unanimous consent or voice vote. But Johnson has put a hold on the legislation.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is a co-sponsor of Johnson's proposal, according to a draft of legislative text obtained by The Hill.

A Republican aide said Johnson's proposal has been filed as a substitute amendment to Cornyn's bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Cornyn, however, says it would be "problematic" to cut Columbus Day, which celebrates the Italian explorer who is widely credited with being the first European to discover the American continent. Columbus Day has long been popular with Italian Americans, in particular.

Cornyn said swapping in Juneteenth and cutting out Columbus Day "dilutes the message we're trying to send, which is one of being respectful and honoring and remembering our history."

"I think that's problematic," he said of the Johnson counteroffer. "We're working through all those things right now we just don't have an answer right this second."

Cornyn, who faces a potentially competitive reelection race, introduced his bill with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to make Juneteenth a federal holiday last month. Its co-sponsors include Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The Senate passed a resolution sponsored by Cornyn honoring Juneteenth last month. The day is celebrated by 47 states, including Texas, as well as the District of Columbia. 

Johnson estimates a single federal holiday costs the government about $600 million in paid time off for federal employees.

Lankford in a statement said that while Juneteenth deserves to be remembered, Congress needs to weigh the economic impact of adding to the total of federal holidays.

"Throughout our history, we have strived to become a more perfect union and Juneteenth was a huge step in attaining that goal. We should celebrate these strides on the federal level while remaining cognizant of the impact the existing 10 federal holidays have on federal services and local businesses," he said.

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