House moves quickly to send Biden a bill creating Juneteenth federal holiday

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The House on Wednesday passed legislation designating June 19 as a new federal holiday, just a day after the Senate voted unanimously to approve a mirror bill commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

The rare bipartisan legislation, which passed 415 to 14, will go to President Biden’s desk just a day or two before the date arrives on Saturday.

“What I see here today is racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom,” said Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. “And that is what Juneteenth is all about.”

It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. Both campaigns encountered delay and controversy, but passage this time was relatively quick compared with the fight over MLK Day.

The Juneteenth bill, which was first introduced in June 2020 by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was blocked from passing with unanimous consent last year by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Johnson said he supported recognizing the significance of Juneteenth but objected to the cost of declaring a new federal holiday, which would mandate a paid day off for federal employees.

Johnson backed down this week, although he noted in a statement Tuesday that he still objects to the “cost and lack of debate.”

“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter,” he said. “Therefore, I do not intend to object.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a cosponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said many Republicans chose to support the bill because “the time couldn’t be more ripe” to send “a very clear message of reconciliation.”

“I think he realizes this was inevitable, that [Senate Majority Leader Charles. E.] Schumer could attach it to a must-pass bill,” Cornyn said of Johnson. “And so I think he just made his point and decided that he would relent.”

Cornyn and Rep. Van Taylor (R-Texas), a cosponsor of the bill in the House, noted the importance of encouraging education and awareness of America’s history of slavery.

“I think that the aspiration to be better, to make progress, is really the theory founding our country,” Taylor said. “And I think it’s important to recognize we are getting a little bit closer to that aspiration.”

Still, some House Republicans expressed concern that there was not time to issue a report on the budgetary effects of the legislation and that the official name of the holiday, the Juneteenth National Independence Day, could be easily confused with Independence Day and divide Americans along racial lines.

Republican Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale of Montana called the holiday a Democratic effort to “create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics.”

“Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote no,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) rejected the idea that the name of the holiday was inappropriate, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said she was “disturbed” to hear Republicans take issue with it.

“I want my colleague on the other side — and I want to say, my white colleague on the other side: getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different than a country getting the independence to rule itself,” Lawrence said.

Democratic lawmakers connected the passage of the holiday to ongoing racial justice issues and efforts to pass police reform after Floyd’s murder.

At a news conference Wednesday in front of the Capitol, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said that “today is not enough” and that “there’s so much more work left to be done.”

The history behind Juneteenth

June 19, commonly known as Juneteenth, celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation took effect at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1863, legally freeing all enslaved people in the Confederate states.

But it was not immediately implemented everywhere. In many Confederate areas, including the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people were not freed until much later, after Congress passed the 13th Amendment in 1865.

In Texas, freedom finally came on June 19, 1865. Roughly 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, announcing that enslaved Black Americans were free — and the day came to be known as Juneteenth by the newly freed people.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia officially observe Juneteenth, and many hold celebrations. It is not recognized in South Dakota. In Texas, it is a paid state holiday.

Will Biden sign Juneteenth into law before June 19?

House lawmakers rushed to pass the legislation Wednesday with an eye on the calendar. June 19 is Saturday.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said at a House Rules Committee hearing Wednesday that he was “eternally grateful” to panel members for being “incredibly cooperative” and pushing the bill through on short notice.

“We certainly understand the need to move this legislation expeditiously and want to cooperate with you in every way in that regard,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

It’s unclear when Biden will sign the bill, but given the short timeline, it’s unlikely that federal employees will be paid to observe the new holiday this year.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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