WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) - A hate crimes bill to combat violence against Asian Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic passed the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly on Thursday, a rare bipartisan vote in the evenly divided chamber.
The bill passed 94-1, with Missouri Senator Josh Hawley the only no vote. It must pass the House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a clear majority. President Joe Biden has called for passage.
"When given the opportunity to work, the Senate can work. Members from both sides of the aisle have worked together ... to consider and perfect and enact legislation responding to a pressing issue," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor earlier in the week.
Reports of violence against Asian Americans have spiked since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Activists and police said anti-Asian sentiment was fed by comments from former President Donald Trump blaming the pandemic on China using terms such as “kung flu.”.
The measure, authored by Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono and Representative Grace Meng, designates a Justice Department employee to expedite a review of hate crimes reported to police during the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides guidance for local law enforcement agencies to report hate crimes, expand public education campaigns and combat discriminatory language in describing the pandemic.
"This legislation will improve the Justice Department’s response to the appalling rise in hate incidents targeting the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community," said the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin.
In one sign of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 92-6 on April 14 to advance the measure, and senators from both parties worked on changes.
"Earnest bipartisan conversations have improved this legislation considerably behind the scenes," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week.
One change, the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act, would provide funds to improve reporting of hate crimes and expand resources for victims. It was named after Khalid Jabara, an Arab-American killed by a neighbor in 2016, and Heather Heyer, killed in 2017 when a car drove into counter-protesters after a white supremacist rally in Virginia.