Emotional Senate debate as Rand Paul blocks bill to make lynching a federal crime

Lawmakers have tried to outlaw the act nearly 200 times.

June 4, 2020, 7:12 PM

Lynching is still not a federal crime in the United States, despite nearly 200 attempts by lawmakers to make it so.

Now, as the nation grapples with the death of George Floyd, emotional debate broke out on the Senate floor as one lawmaker stood in the way of allowing the historic passage of a bill that would outlaw lynchings: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The House has already passed an anti-lynching legislation, which is awaiting approval in the Senate. But Paul has said he is concerned it could allow more minor altercations to be punishable as lynchings.

"Bruises could be considered lynching," Paul told reporters Wednesday. "That's a problem, to put someone in jail for 10 years for some kind of altercation," referring to the measure's penalty for conspiring or attempting to conspire to commit a lynching.

Paul agreed that lynching should be "universally condemned," but said conflating minor offenses with lynching does a "disservice to those who were lynched in our history."

ABC News reached out to Paul's office for clarification and was pointed to a statement about Paul's proposed amendment to the legislation.

"The bill as written would allow altercations resulting in a cut, abrasion, bruise, or any other injury, no matter how temporary, to be subject to a 10-year penalty," the statement read. "My amendment would simply apply a serious bodily injury standard, which would ensure crimes resulting in substantial risk of death and extreme physical pain be prosecuted as a lynching."

Paul tried to make his proposed changes to the measure on the Senate floor Thursday, but his move was blocked by Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. and Cory Booker, D-N.J., who condemned Paul for distracting from Floyd's memorial service happening Thursday afternoon, on what they said should be a "day of national mourning"

"The pain experienced not only by that man, that human being and his family and his children, but the pain of the people of America witnessing what we have witnessed since the founding of this country, which is that black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity," Harris said. "And it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law and call it what it is."

"One man, one man is standing in the way of the law of the land changing because of a difference of interpretation," Booker said. "Does America need a win today on racial justice?"

Paul's amendment did not pass, and the bill remains in limbo.

In order for the Senate to quickly pass the House bill, senators would need to agree to it unanimously, without offering amendments.

Any amendment would require a vote of the full Senate, and mean the bill would have to be sent back to the House for additional consideration. That would further delay congressional passage because the House is currently out of session.

The National Journal was the first to report that Paul was the senator who was blocking the legislation from proceeding.

If passed as it currently stands, the bill would increase the penalty for those who commit certain civil rights violations, already set out in federal law, if the violator is found to have conspired with a group, according to a spokesperson for Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who proposed the House legislation.

This gets at the "mob mentality" of a lynching, the spokesperson said.

While Paul's office did not clarify which part of the law might allow bruising and other offenses to be punishable as a lynching, it is possible he was referring to language that already exists in U.S. law, which punishes anyone who "willfully injures" or "intimidates" while committing certain civil rights violations.

If the House bill passed, it is possible that those who commit these types of violations -- which are not necessarily life-threatening -- could potentially face the harsher punishment of up to 10 years in prison if the violation was done in conspiracy with a group and deemed a lynching.

The House passed its anti-lynching bill in February, named in remembrance of Emmett Till, a young black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. The bill received broad bipartisan support, clearing the House by a vote of 410-4. A nearly identical version unanimously passed the Senate in 2019.

The Senate bill was proposed by its three black members: Harris, Booker and GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. The three applauded passage of the House bill in February. The two bills are nearly identical.

A spokesperson for Paul's office told ABC News that he was not present for the 2019 Senate vote.

PHOTO: Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, departs following a vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May, 14, 2020.
Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, departs following a vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May, 14, 2020.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rush has tweeted about the need to pass the anti-lynching legislation in light of the death of Ahmaud Arbery. He expressed frustration with Paul's opposition to the House bill.

"The language of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act is IDENTICAL to the bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate," Rush tweeted. "The only conclusion I can draw from @RandPaul's sudden opposition is he has an issue with the House bill being named after Emmett Till."

When the House passed its legislation on Feb. 26, 2020, advocates were hopeful that the House and Senate measures could be quickly reconciled and the legislation could head to President Donald Trump's desk before the conclusion of Black History Month.

On Wednesday, Scott told Politico that the House could easily move the legislation by taking up the anti-lynching bill that already passed in the Senate.

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