WASHINGTON — A long-debated bill to broaden the federal hate-crime law to cover violence against gays was approved Thursday by the Democratic-controlled House in what would be the first major expansion of the law in more than 40 years.
The measure, which is expected to go before the Senate within days, had faced a veto threat from President George W. Bush, but it has President Obama's support.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said that Obama looked forward to signing the bill.
"As the president said back in April, the hate-crimes bill takes on an important civil rights issue to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association," he said.
A version passed the Senate in July by a filibuster-proof 63-28 vote, so its passage this time seems assured.
"It's a very exciting day for us here in the Capitol," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), noting that she has pushed for expanding the law since her arrival in Congress 22 years ago.
"What makes these crimes so bad is they are not just crimes against individuals; they are crimes against entire communities," Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat who is gay, said during the debate.
Opponents of the measure have argued that existing laws cover hate crimes.
"Violent attacks on people are already illegal regardless of the motive behind them," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), warning that the legislation would "put us on a slippery slope of deeming particular groups as more important than others under our system of justice."
Republican lawmakers also objected to the placement of the hate-crimes measure: attached to a $680-billion defense policy bill, which included a 3.4% pay increase for the military and authorization for the development of a new engine for the next-generation jet fighter, among other items.
The measure passed by a vote of 281 to 146, with Republicans complaining that they had been put in the politically awkward position of voting against a defense bill.
"We should not be doing social engineering on this bill," Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said.
"Shame on you," he told Democrats.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said that Democrats had needlessly introduced a "partisan matter in an otherwise bipartisan defense bill for our troops."
"No member should be forced to vote for a partisan social agenda in order to provide for our troops," he said.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) accused Democrats of hijacking the bill to "push their partisan agenda."
"It sends a terrible message to our military that this provision has been shoved into this bill when it does nothing for our military families or our national defense," he said. "Democrats should stop using our troops and their families as a vehicle for their political games."
The hate-crime legislation would expand the law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity.
Existing federal law defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias based on religion, race, national origin or color.
The measure also would give federal authorities more leeway to help state and local law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
It also makes grants available to states and communities to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles and to train law enforcement officers in investigating, prosecuting and preventing hate crimes.
The bill also makes it a federal crime to attack members of the military because of their service.
House approval of the measure, long championed by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), comes as Obama prepares to address the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday.
The gay rights group will present an award to Judy and Dennis Shepard, whose gay son, Matthew, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die 11 years ago in Wyoming.
The legislation is named after him and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death behind a truck in the east Texas town of Jasper, also in 1998.
The president's address will be followed Sunday with a major march on Washington by gay rights supporters.
A number of Republicans assailed the measure as "thought crimes" legislation, contending that it could lead to the prosecution of a pastor delivering sermons against homosexuality if one of his church members committed a hate crime.
They have hinted at a constitutional challenge.
"Congress should protect all Americans equally and not provide special protections to a few politically favored groups," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement.
He also said: "It violates the principle of equal justice under the law and also threatens to infringe on the free speech rights of the American people."
The bill's supporters, however, say that they added language to the measure to protect freedom of religious expression.
"There are ample safeguards in the bill for constitutionally protected speech," said Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel of the Human Rights Campaign.
The group's president, Joe Solmonese, added: "The day is within sight when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will benefit from updating our nation's hate-crimes laws and giving local law enforcement the tools they need to combat hate violence."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that "it is remarkable that, at this late date, hate-crimes legislation should remain a controversial idea. The idea that someone could be singled out for a crime of violence due to his or her actual or perceived race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability is simply repugnant."