Statement On Coburn Amendment To Omnibus Appropriations Bill

Mr. President, I worked very hard over the last two years with Senator Dodd and Congressman Lewis to pass the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act to provide resources for the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and prosecute decades-old unsolved civil rights cold case crimes.  It could have been law earlier than the end of last year had not Republican opposition obstructed its enactment. This should have been a noncontroversial bill and it should not have taken several Congresses to pass. 

Indeed, passage ended years of opposition by Senator Coburn and others across the aisle. In June 2007, we unsuccessfully attempted to get Senate consideration and passage of the bill by unanimous consent.  Senator Coburn placed a hold on the Till bill. Senator Coburn also announced that he opposed the Till bill because the FBI is already investigating and prosecuting old civil rights cases and because crimes committed before 1970 cannot be prosecuted under most Federal civil rights statutes. 

The Emmett Till bill was one of many bills that Majority Leader Reid included in the Advancing America’s Priorities Act (S.3297) last summer. That bill was opposed by Senator Coburn who objected to its consideration. 

I worked for months to have it considered and passed as a separate stand alone measure. We have Senator Dodd and Representative John Lewis to thank for their leadership and hard work in persevering and getting passed Senator Coburn’s objection and roadblock. I was happy when he finally ended his opposition, after much public criticism. On September 24, 2008, the full Senate passed the Till bill by voice vote after Senator Coburn lifted his hold.  Senator Coburn announced that he “can’t convince” his colleagues that “there are plenty of funds” at Justice to probe these old crimes, so he decided to lift his hold. 

I am glad that Senator Coburn finally ended his opposition to the Emmett Till bill. I know that he now likes to empha that he belatedly became a supporter of the bill, but that was after years of having stalled its passage. Regrettably, the current Coburn amendment appears to be as mischievous as was his unsuccessful amendment to the District of Columbia House Voting Rights bill last week. It should suffer the same fate. It should not delay or deter passage of the Omnibus Appropriations bill that needs to be passed by the Senate and signed by the President this week.

This special “earmark” that Senator Coburn is proposing is just not needed. Its functional impact if accepted would be to prevent enactment of the Omnibus Appropriations bill this week and force it to be reconsidered by the House of Representatives. At a time when confidence and funding of our nation’s institutions is critical, we should not be playing games with funding. We need to get it done. We need to work together to solve the nation’s problems.

In fact, this Omnibus Appropriations bill increases funding for the Justice Department, specifically for the Civil Rights Division, and already increases funding available to Emmett Till-type investigations and grants. I doubt that anyone in the Senate is a stronger supporter of federal assistance to state and local law enforcement than I. Providing that support will take place when the Omnibus Appropriations bill is enacted and we can provide the increased funding at last year’s appropriated levels and the funding in the continuing resolution. I believe the best way to move forward is to pass the Omnibus Appropriations bill without adding this additional, unnecessary “earmark.”

As the able Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee, a longtime supporter of the Emmett Till bill, has set forth, not only does the Civil Rights Division get more funding under the bill, not only does the Inspector General receive more funding under the bill, but $30 million is available under the bill for competitive funds for states and local jurisdictions, including for investigating and prosecuting civil rights violations. In addition, the increased funding for U.S. Attorneys’ offices, something for which some of us have been fighting for years, is significant; the funding for grants to state forensic labs is significant; and there is more than $150 million to reduce the backlog of offender profiles and untested DNA, something we have fought for in the Debbie Smith Act for years.

I have no doubt that Attorney General Holder is sensitive to these matters. Our first African-American Attorney General does not need to be lectured or mandated on investigating heinous crimes committed against African Americans during the civil rights era. He has spoken about his dedication to restoring the Civil Rights Division. He will demonstrate his commitment. Indeed, in his recent letter to Chairwoman Mikulski he reiterates the Justice Department’s “wholehearted” support for the goals of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, notes some of the actions the Department has already taken, and states his “personal commitment” to pursue these matters. Ironically, Senator Coburn voted against the nomination of Eric Holder, as well.

I join Chairman Inouye, the distinguished Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Chairwoman Mikulski, the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee; Senator Dodd, the author of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act; and the Majority Leader in opposing this amendment at this time on this legislation.

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