Despite broad support, Rand Paul holds up anti-lynching bill

There have been nearly 200 attempts in Congress to approve anti-lynching legislation. Rand Paul is standing in the way of the latest bipartisan effort.
Sen. Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., arrives for the Senate Republicans lunch in the Hart Senate Office building on May 5, 2020.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Over the last several decades, there have been nearly 200 attempts in Congress to approve anti-lynching legislation. Each failed. In late 2018, the Senate finally passed a bipartisan measure, but the Republican-led House didn't advance it before the end of the 115th Congress.

In February 2019, the stage was finally set. The federal anti-lynching legislation was introduced by the Senate's three African-American members -- Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) -- and it passed unanimously. The bill then went to the House, which passed it by a margin of 410 to 4.

The House did, however, make one symbolic tweak to the legislation: the Democratic-led chamber renamed the bill the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, as a way to honor the memory of the 14-year-old young man who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

That minor change meant the Senate would have to pass the bill one last time. That was supposed to happen yesterday. It didn't.

Raw feelings were evident as Sen. Rand Paul -- who is single-handedly holding up the bill despite letting it pass last year -- sought changes to the legislation as a condition of allowing it to pass.

Right off the bat, the Kentucky Republican's timing could be better. Rand Paul, at least for now, blocked the anti-lynching bill in the midst of a national outcry of racial injustices. In fact, just yesterday, as the GOP senator quarreled with Booker and Harris over the proper legal definition of "lynching," the memorial service was underway of George Floyd, who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Making matters just a bit worse, Rand Paul isn't the ideal messenger for the message: ahead of his Senate election in 2010, the former ophthalmologist raised objections to a key element of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But the Republican senator did it anyway, apparently indifferent to appearances and unmoved by the arguments from Booker and Harris. Paul wants changes to the language of the bipartisan bill; the measure's sponsors believe the text is fine as-is.

How can one member hold up a bill that already enjoys broad support? As a procedural matter, Harris and Booker yesterday were trying to advance their bill through unanimous consent -- a common tactic for approving uncontroversial legislation with broad support. The problem, of course, is that it allows just one member to stand in the way.

In theory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), Paul's Kentucky colleague, could schedule a floor vote and pass the anti-lynching bill the usual way, but Politico reported yesterday, "GOP leaders currently have no plans to devote floor time to the bill."

As for what happens now, no one's altogether sure. Maybe McConnell will bring the legislation to the floor; maybe Rand Paul will end his blockade; maybe the anti-lynching bill could be added as an amendment to some other bill; or maybe the latest in a series of related efforts going back decades will meet the same fate as the other the anti-lynching proposals, simply because of one man.