Sens. Mazie Hirono and Susan Collins paved the way for the U.S. Senate on Thursday to approve, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, a bill designed to address hate crimes directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who are experiencing a surge in harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Democrats announced last week that they would move forward on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, sponsored by Hirono of Hawaii in the Senate and Rep. Grace Meng of New York in the House of Representatives, its fate in the evenly split and hyper-partisan Senate was unclear.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Democrats were “open to strengthening” the hate crime legislation, which had yet to pick up support from any Republicans in the 100-seat chamber, where most measures, including this one, effectively require 60 votes to pass.
Shortly after, Schumer called Collins, a Republican from Maine who is often a sought-after swing vote, and asked if she would be willing to build support for the legislation among Republicans. Collins then called Hirono, and the two women began working on an amendment that would pave the way for the bill’s passage — and all but ensure it ends up on President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law, given that bills in the Democratic-controlled House require a simple majority to pass.
On Wednesday, after a week of discussions between their offices, Hirono and Collins put out a joint statement on an amendment they brokered that Hirono said would “broaden support” for the legislation “while retaining the bill’s core purpose to combat anti-Asian hate.” Collins thanked Hirono for her leadership on the matter and urged her Republican colleagues to “affirm our commitment to stand with our Asian American and Pacific Islander community.”
The bill, as amended by Hirono and Collins, passed by a 94-to-1 vote. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri was the only no vote.
“It went very smoothly, I complimented her leadership on the floor, she said that we wouldn’t have gotten here without me, so maybe there’s hope yet, for the Senate,” Collins said in an interview with The 19th after the vote.
The legislation, once signed into law, will designate a point person at the Department of Justice to review hate crimes related to the COVID-19 pandemic and provide additional support for the state and local law enforcement agencies responding to hate crimes in real time.
Biden supports the measure and late last month announced steps that his administration would take on its own to address AAPI hate incidents, including establishing a COVID-19 equity task force.
Hirono told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday night that she had “worked very hard with Susan Collins and other Republicans” on the legislation over the past week, saying it was “an opportunity for the House and Senate to stand with this community and say this kind of targeted, racist attack has no place in America.”
“In particular, I want to thank Senator Collins for her good-faith efforts to amend this bill and build support for it in the Republican caucus,” Hirono said on the Senate floor on Thursday ahead of the vote, looking at her Republican colleague.
“Senator Collins, I really appreciate your work on this bill, we would not be here without your support,” Hirono concluded.
The Senate’s approval of the bill comes just weeks after eight people were killed at Atlanta-area spas by a White gunman. All but one of the victims were women and six were of Asian descent. There has been public pressure to classify the attack as a hate crime — most experts agree that hate crimes are vastly undercounted — in a test of new hate crime legislation in Georgia that was enacted last year.
During the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 3,800 “hate incidents” targeting AAPI individuals — including verbal harassment, general avoidance, physical assault, civil rights violations and online harassment — were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition of community organizations.
The Hirono-Collins talks are a political detente between the two women. During the 2018 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Hirono publicly and repeatedly criticized Collins for her decision to confirm him, saying Collins’ remarks about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against the future high-court judge were “insulting.”
Collins said that she had become “very concerned about the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans” during the pandemic and, as a result, asked her staff to take a close look at Hirono’s bill since she thought it was important for the Senate to send a “very strong signal to the Asian American community that we’re behind them.”
The two senators were able to “put aside any past acrimony” and work closely over the next week to iron out changes that allowed the bill to become a rare bright spot of bipartisan cooperation in a chamber where votes typically occur along party lines, she said.
Collins said she was concerned, for example, that the original bill text specifically mentioned hate crimes related to COVID-19 instead of against Asian Americans more generally, creating an “additional element of proof that a crime was related to the pandemic” to be classified a hate crime.
Though Democrats are aiming to approve Biden’s massive infrastructure package using a process that would only require a simple majority for it to pass, Collins said she thought that too could potentially pick up Republican support if the two parties engage in good-faith negotiations.
Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released a survey conducted April 5 through 11, after the shootings in Atlanta, that showed more than 80 percent of Asian Americans report increasing violence against them. Nearly half of the Asian adults surveyed said that since the pandemic started, they have — at least once — feared someone would physically attack them, been the subject to racial slurs, noticed people were uncomfortable around them, been told to go back to their home country or blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak. One-fifth cited former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a main reason for the increased violence.
In a separate survey released late last month by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, 55 percent of AAPI women, specifically, had “personally encountered” racism in the past two years. In Georgia, that figure jumped to 66 percent. The survey, the largest survey of AAPI women ever conducted, also found these experiences impacted the women’s policy priorities, particularly increased protections for immigrants.
Mariel Padilla contributed to this report.