Shamefully ditching the anti-lynching vote

Sen. Bill Frist helps a few select colleagues dodge a resolution apologizing for what Frist himself dubbed "one of the worst failings of the Senate in its entire history."

Published June 15, 2005 9:35PM (EDT)

More evidence that Republican "compassionate conservatism" is nothing but a vacant slogan: A story in Wednesday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist refused numerous requests on Monday for a roll call vote that would have put senators on record with a "resolution apologizing for past failures to pass anti-lynching laws."

Instead of formally voting on the resolution during business hours of the senate, which would've required all 100 senators to be present for a roll call, Frist conveniently allowed the resolution to pass Monday evening under something called "unanimous consent," a provision that allows for the resolution (a formal, symbolic statement that won't be enacted into law) to be "adopted as long as no senator expresses opposition" -- and regardless of how few are in attendance to affirm the resolution.

Eighty-five senators had managed to sign on as co-sponsors by Monday, while 15 senators -- all Republicans -- evidently had better things to do.

According to the Journal-Constitution, as descendents of lynching victims sat in an otherwise empty Senate gallery on Monday night, the resolution was adopted under a "voice vote procedure" that did not require any senator's presence. One would think Frist's somber words on the Senate floor Monday would have made the resolution a priority worthy of regular business hours: "For over 60 years, the United States Senate refused to act against lynching -- against vigilante  mob murder," Frist had intoned. "This was one of the worst failings of the Senate in its entire history. It was a shame on the institution."

"Other groups have gotten roll call votes, so there was nothing new to this, nothing different that we were asking for." said Mark Planning, chief counsel for the group pushing for the resolution.

According to Frist's spokesman, Bob Stevenson, the vote went down the way the resolution's sponsors (Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, and George Allen, R-Virginia) had requested. But both Landrieu and Allen disputed Stevenson's assertion, saying they had preferred the resolution be put to a formal roll call.

Some of the fiercest criticism of how the process played out came from Jan Cohen, wife of former Defense Secretary William Cohen, and a member in the Committee for a Formal Apology. She said that the senators who dodged the resolution were pandering to a "very narrow-minded and backword, hateful constituency," and suggested that Frist and company's tactics were worthy of the Klu Klux Klan. "They're hiding out," she said, "and it's reminiscent of a pattern of hiding out under a hood, in the night, riding past, scaring people."

Despite Monday's maneuverings, Daily Kos points out that senators can co-sponsor legislation after it is voted on, which means that the handful of hold-outs could still add their names to the resolution. So is it only the timing of the after-hours "voice vote" that's stopping them? Maybe Dr. Frist knows the answer.

By J.J. Helland

J.J. Helland is Salon's editorial fellow in New York.

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