WASHINGTON — Just days after Arizona Sen. John McCain forged an unusual bipartisan alliance with the White House to cut $1.75 billion in increased spending for the F-22 jet fighter, congressional Democratic leaders on Wednesday added a hate-crimes measure to the must-pass bill.
The move, backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sparked heated debate on the Senate floor as McCain unsuccessfully sought to remove the hate crimes amendment, known as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, from the broader defense spending measure on the grounds that the two matters are unrelated.
The provision, named for Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was robbed, beaten and left to die in 1998, would extend protection under the federal hate crimes law to people who've been attacked based on sexual orientation, disabilities, gender or gender identity.
The Democratic leadership attached the hate crimes amendment to the annual defense authorization bill because the military spending measure must pass. Opponents claim such crimes are already covered by state laws or that the amendment would have a "chilling effect" on free speech.
"I've watched the defense authorization bill move its way through Congress and occasionally, including at other times, I've seen amendments put on the bills which are non-germane," McCain said on the Senate floor. "But I haven't seen the majority leader of the Senate, whose responsibility is to move legislation through the Senate, take a totally non-relevant, all-encompassing controversial piece of legislation and put it on a bill that is as important to the nation's security as this legislation is.
"We're breaking new ground here," McCain said. "I'm deeply, deeply disappointed, and I would question anyone's priorities, anyone's priorities, who puts this kind of legislation ahead of the needs of the men and women who are serving our military with bravery, courage and distinction."
Reid called McCain's pique over adding the hate crimes legislation to the defense spending bill "a new outrage over a very old issue."
"I recognize he has strong feelings, well . . . so do I. . . . I wonder which recent morning did the senator wake up and feel so strongly," Reid said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "Where has he been in the past?"
Reid said he supports the amendment to cap spending on F-22s, rejected McCain's assertions that the majority leader is putting politics ahead of the military's needs and countered that the Arizona lawmaker has never fully supported the hate crimes legislation.
Reid said Democrats would've gladly taken up the hate crimes measure separately. However, he said, "The Republicans' relentless strategy of slowing, stopping and stalling has made it impossible. . . . This could have been done yesterday or the day before if but for the stubbornness of the Senate Republicans."
Reid promised that the vote on the hate crimes amendment would take place this week, adding that he strongly supports further debate on the F-22 amendment.
The hate crimes amendment has languished in Congress for nearly a decade, and through the years its sponsors have tried to attach it to various measures — including defense spending provisions. However, the efforts never succeeded because of opposition from conservatives or veto threats from former President George W. Bush.
The White House declined to comment on whether Obama would veto the defense spending measure if it included both the additional funding for the F-22s, which it opposes, and the expanded federal hate crimes language, which it supports.
In the debate over F-22 funding, McCain sided with the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials and a bipartisan group of lawmakers against a faction of military leaders, airmen who favor the F-22 and members of Congress — including Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss — whose districts benefit from the aircraft's construction.
"The Administration strongly objects to the provisions in the bill authorizing $1.75 billion for seven F-22s in FY 2010," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement Wednesday. "If the final bill presented to him contains this provision, the President will veto it."
A provision in the $679.8 billion defense authorization bill calls for spending $1.75 billion to build seven additional F-22 fighter jets. Gates opposes the measure and instead wants to cap production of the F-22 at 187 and replace the planes, parts of which are manufactured in Georgia, with the F-35, which has parts produced in Texas.
Both planes are built by Lockheed Martin, which has publicly stayed out of the fray.
The Senate could vote on the defense bill this week. Last month, the House of Representatives approved a version of the defense bill that includes $369 million as a down payment on 12 additional F-22s.
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