Washington -- After the same-sex marriage fights that roiled the 2004 elections and knocked gay rights groups on their heels, advocates seemed poised with the Democratic seizure of Congress in November to enact federal civil rights laws they have sought for nearly two decades.
But four hours before House passage Thursday of a federal hate crimes bill that has languished since 1991, the White House issued a threat to veto the bill, which would be just the third veto of the Bush presidency.
"It makes it apparent to a lot of people," said Rep. Barney Frank, a gay Massachusetts Democrat, "that as long as you have George Bush as president, nothing that tries to promote fairness for gay and lesbian people has any chance."
Congress also is considering another measure, introduced in 1994 but never passed, to ban employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The carefully worded statement of administration policy from the White House called the expansion of hate crimes protections at the federal level "unnecessary and constitutionally questionable" and said that if the bill made it to the president, "his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill."
The House passed the measure anyway, 237-180, mostly along party lines, after a testy debate and a bizarre parliamentary move that had Republicans attempt to extend protections to senior citizens and military personnel, only to refuse the Democrats' offer to incorporate both groups.
Current federal hate crimes law covers violence motivated by race, color, religion and national origin, and involves only federally protected activities such as voting, going to school and traveling across state lines.
The new legislation would add to the law sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender and disability. It would not be limited to federally protected activity, drawing GOP warnings that, barring some relation to interstate commerce, it would be deemed an unconstitutional intrusion on local and state authority.
The bill would allow federal law enforcement agents to assist state and local police to investigate hate crimes, if the attorney general approved.
Religious conservatives, including a collection of African American ministers, the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, waged a lobbying blitz before the vote, warning that the bill violates equal protection under the law, criminalizes thought and treads on free speech, chilling religious expression against homosexuality by making preachers, rabbis and imams potentially liable for contributing to violence against gays and lesbians.
Falling short of the two-thirds majority of 290 votes they would need to override a veto, Democrats conceded that the legislation could die.
Nonetheless, the Senate plans to take up a similar bill, with the bipartisan co-sponsorship of Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. The Senate bill is named in honor of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man beaten and left hanging to die on a barbed wire fence near Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. His two attackers were convicted and each sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay lobbying group, said he would ask the president to meet with Shepard's mother, Judy Shepard, and others like her "before he decides on vetoing this bill."
Shepard issued an angry denunciation of the bill's opponents this week, accusing them of a "campaign of misinformation and bald-faced lies" based on "fear that the federal government might finally legislatively recognize that gay Americans exist, and need the same rights and protections the rest of us take for granted."
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian Democrat from Wisconsin, would not say whether the bill's supporters would be willing to make any changes to meet White House objections.
The administration noted that other vulnerable classes such as the elderly and military personnel were omitted. It also stated that local and state law enforcement agencies have the power to prosecute such crimes and "are doing so effectively."
Baldwin noted, however, that the veto threat was less strongly worded than the stem cell and war funding veto messages.
Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican from Gold River (Sacramento County) and former California attorney general who opposed the bill, agreed that it was a "B-plus" veto message that "doesn't say absolutely we'll veto the bill."
Lungren, who said his objections were more limited than most of his GOP colleagues, said he was rebuffed in his attempts to write a stronger definition of sexual orientation into the bill. He said 45 states, including California, already have hate crimes statutes.
"Unfortunately, I've had enough experience with courts to know that you've got to be very specific about what you mean," Lungren said.
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.