The bill passed the House today, 237-180. It goes on to the Senate. A statement released by the administration says that Bush's senior advisors will recommend a veto. That's not quite the same as saying he will veto it, but it's pretty close. If he does, it would be the third of his presidency, after stem cells and a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. The text of the bill is here.
The administration's given reasons are that the law is unnecessary, an intrusion on federalism, and constitutionally questionable as an exercise of federal power. I expressed similar reservations in a post here about the bill two months ago. To its credit, the administration is avoiding the common and I think mistaken complaint that the bill would punish speech and thought. Anti-gay organizations, like Concerned Women for America, will certainly be happy about this. But their glee is insufficient reason to support the bill.
Andrew Sullivan, who like me opposes hate crimes laws as a general matter, complains that Bush's veto of this bill represents a double-standard under which gays are just about the only commonly victimized group left out of the special protection federal law already provides. That might in fact be the sort of pandering to anti-gay bigotry that's going on here and, if so, the administration deserves to be criticized not for the veto but for the malign motive behind it.
The problem with this criticism, however, is that the bill does much more than simply add "sexual orientation" to the existing federal law on hate crimes passed in 1968. It's a whole new statute. Protecting gays is only one element, though the most publicized. The bill considerably expands federal jurisdiction over hate crimes in general, for all categories, by eliminating the current requirement that the crime occur while the victim is engaged in a federally protected activity. That jurisdictional limitation has kept federal involvement very limited in an area where state authority has traditionally reigned. The new law also calls for more federal resources to be expended on all classes of hate crimes. The veto of an amendment merely adding sexual orientation to existing federal law would pretty clearly reflect an anti-gay double-standard. A veto of this much more comprehensive bill does not.
To test this proposition, and to put gays on a par with other groups often targeted for hate crimes, Congress could simply amend the 1968 federal hate-crimes law to add protection for sexual orientation. Then we'll see what the President does.
UPDATE: Marty Lederman has some thoughts on an interesting wrinkle in the administration's constitutional objections to the bill.