BREAKING: Matthew Shepard Act Passes U.S. Senate

LGBT history was made late last night when U.S. Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Act as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill. This is the most dramatic federal endorsement of LGBT rights in history and the first major achievement made during the Obama administration.

The Senate has approved the most sweeping expansion of federal hate crimes protections since the original law was enacted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The legislation broadens federal reach to protect those physically attacked because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or a disability. Current law is limited to crimes motivated by race, ethnicity or religion. The Senate approved the measure on a voice vote immediately after voting 63-28 to overcome Republican-led opposition to considering the measure an amendment to a defense spending bill. Sixty votes were needed to clear that procedural hurdle. The House in April passed a stand-alone hate crimes bill that is similar to the Senate legislation.

Congratulations are due in particular to Judy Shepard, who has spent the last ten years passionately fighting for this win. Thank you, Judy. Thank you.

UPDATE: Well, you knew there’d be a snag with attaching the bill to DOD funding.

Though the amendment garnered three votes more than necessary to reach cloture, the fate of the hate crimes measure is now partially linked to $1.75 billion in funding for F-22 fighter jets that is also included in the DOD legislation. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates both oppose the F-22 program and a White House spokesperson said the president will not sign a DOD bill that continues to fund the program.

“The President has long supported the hate crimes bill and gave his personal commitment to Judy Shepard that we will enact an inclusive bill,” said Shin Inouye, referring to Shepard’s Oval Office visit with the president earlier this year. “Unfortunately, the President will have to veto the Defense Authorization bill if it includes wasteful spending for additional F-22s. The collective judgment of the Service Chiefs and Secretaries of the military departments is that the current program is sufficient to meet operational requirements. A Presidential veto would not indicate any change in President Obama’s commitment to seeing the hate crimes bill enacted.”

Senators Carl Levin and John McCain have offered a bi-partisan amendment to remove the F-22 funding that is scheduled for a vote Monday, but insiders say the count is unclear. If the amendment fails and President Obama vetoes the bill, it will be sent back to the Senate for a rewrite. A Democratic Senate aide said Senator Reid was optimistic, nonetheless, that hate crimes would ultimately make the final version of DOD authorization. “This was a good vote,” said the aide. “Senator Reid is hopeful that we can keep this language in the final bill.”