WASHINGTON — A bill to make violence against gays and lesbians a federal hate crime cleared the Senate on Thursday and headed to the White House.
The 68-29 vote was a victory for civil rights groups that have long sought to expand the federal statute beyond attacks motivated by religion, race, color or national origin.
The bill, which President Obama is expected to sign, includes penalties for assaults based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., whose Justice Department would be charged with enforcing the provisions, praised the bill's passage.
"There have been nearly 80,000 hate-crime incidents reported to the FBI since I first testified before Congress in support of a hate-crimes bill 11 years ago," Holder said.
Recent incidents -- such as the June shooting death of an African American security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist -- "demonstrate that there are still those for whom prejudice can translate into violence," he said.
The legislation also would give federal authorities more power to help state and local law enforcement officials investigate hate crimes and would expand the federal government's ability to intervene. About 45 states have hate-crime statutes.
The bill, which was attached to a $680-billion measure outlining the Pentagon's budget, was passed by the House on Oct. 8.
Some of the 28 Republicans who opposed it said they didn't like being forced to vote on the issue as part of a defense bill.
"It's a shame that this piece of legislation was added to a bill that's supposed to be about supporting our troops," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
The defense bill includes $130 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and authorizes a 3.4% pay raise for the military.
The bill would also make it a federal crime to attack members of the military because of their service.
The hate-crime measure is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death in 1998, and for James Byrd Jr., an African American in Texas who was chained to a pickup and dragged to death the same year.
"It has been more than 10 years since the senseless and brutal death of Matthew Shepard," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), "and I look forward to watching President Obama sign this much-needed legislation into law."