Anti-bigotry measure defeated after contentious House debate

Associated Press/March 26, 1999
By Jim Abrams

Washington -- Condemning all forms of racism and bigotry would normally make for an easy vote in Congress.

But such a measure went down to defeat Tuesday, with Democrats and Republicans accusing each other of sinister political purposes.

With almost all Democrats either voting against the bill or "present," the resolution stating that the House "denounces all those who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice or religious intolerance" failed to come up with the two-thirds majority needed for passage under special House rules.

The vote was 254 in favor, 152 against and 24 voting "present."

Democrats charged that the GOP leadership, without consulting them, substituted the general language for a Democratic measure that would have specifically condemned the Council of Conservative Citizens, a St. Louis-based group that critics say has a racist agenda.

This "embarrassing substitute," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is "a cover for those Republicans who don't want to condemn the CCC because so many Republican leaders have been associated with this racist group."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., have addressed the group, but have denied knowing of their racist statements.

Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the only black Republican in Congress and chief sponsor of the GOP bill, said singling out one group would "commit a crime of omission by giving a pass to other groups that espouse prejudice."

Watts said after the vote that he was "shocked that these Democrats decided to play partisan political games with the race issue. As someone who has faced the cruel reality of racism in my life, I am deeply offended."

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies 537 hate groups and the GOP language would condemn all of them, Watts said. The House Judiciary Committee put out a statement saying it would cover not only the CCC but such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, National Association for the Advancement of White People and the Knights of Freedom.

Barr said he condemned the racist positions of the CCC and accused the Democrats of hypocrisy for not criticizing a fellow Democrat for addressing the same group. "Practice a little consistency," said Barr, alleging that Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., spoke to the group.

However, a CCC spokesman denied that, as did Democratic lawmakers.

The original Democratic resolution was offered by Rep. Bob Wexler, D-Fla., who said the GOP version was a "sham" that was "designed only to derail our resolution and if successful hand the CCC an unconscionable victory."

CCC Chief Executive Officer Gordon Baum, in a statement last week on the Wexler bill, denied that the group supports white supremacy and anti-Semitism, and called the resolution "the product of left-wing partisans who seek to silence all conservative expression."

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